Lovely weather for ducks; foul weather for Mallards. "Rain really cuts into our midday," says Phil Kelly, surveying his Chicago menswear store, outside of which a storm has cleared the streets. "Midday is when we do about 60% of our business," ruefully adds Joe Cecil, the store's co-owner.

Nonetheless, there is a customer at every other fixture -- a corporate tycoon flips through the polo shirts, a lawyer considers colors at the tie bar, and three younger men vie for a tailor's attention in the fitting room. First-timers and browsers are few in this second-floor store; the average customer perusing these 5,800 square feet of selling space is a repeater who comes out with $170 worth of merchandise. With a median receipt of that size, it is little wonder the company (which has added a second store at a suburban mall) expects to end its first full calendar year with net sales volume of $1.9 million. And no wonder at all that Kelly and Cecil spend their rainy days brooding over how many Chicago businessmen forgot their umbrellas.

Mallards's drawing card is its reputation for -- as its ad slogan goes -- "great quality at surprisingly affordable prices." One-hundred-percent wool suits at less than $300. All-cotton pinpoint oxford shirts at $29.50. Double-stitched "quack" jerseys, a novelty popularized by Cecil's duck imitation at the end of each Mallards radio commercial, go for $11.50. These, mind you, are neither the low-markup prices of a discounter nor the one-day sale prices of a department store. Mallards -- with its so-called value prices aimed at a very specific shopper -- is a different bird entirely.

Mallard's target customer, Kelly explains, is "the guy that most retailers screen out": the 25- to 40-year-old who wants a wardrobe that is somewhere between conservative and crazy, but who has limited patience -- or discretionary income -- for the designer labels and mark-it-up-just-to-mark-it-down prices that characterize many men's stores. This, says Kelly, is a man who will gladly trade endless selection for two or three good purchasing options -- a man for whom Mallards's bright, high-tech decor is a more attractive shopping atmosphere than clubby woods and red leather.

"Above all," Cecil interjects, "this customer isn't looking for the lowest price -- just the highest quality at a good price. He also expects service. To most men, the salesman is the store."

Kelly and Cecil base their conclusions on focus-group research and the combined experience of 10 years at the highest echelons of Marshall Field & Co., the Chicago retail behemoth whose headquarters are across the street from Mallards. Kelly, formerly chairman of the Chicago division, and Cecil, previously a vice-president, believe that retailers are caught in a pricing game that consumers no longer want to play. In department stores, frequent markdowns erode any sense of what an item is worth. In discount outlets, the customer pays for slashed prices in the form of slashed services.

Mallards's strategy takes a middle road. Prices are kept low with private-label merchandise, much of which Kelly and Cecil have helped develop.The 45% to 50% markup Mallards takes on the manufacturing cost isn't uncommonly low, but the fact that it doesn't drop until the twice-a-year clearance sales is uncommon. To maintain the high level of service that Kelly and Cecil believe customers should demand, Mallards attracts and retains its experienced sales staff with healthy salaries that are further sweetened by commissions that reward the achievement of both individual and storewide sales goals. Meanwhile, the customer himself benefits from loyalty-building perquisites, such as expanded shopping hours by appointment and an Executive Club, which, like a Frequent Flyer plan, offers $400 worth of free merchandise for every $2,500 of purchases.

"We believe retail has to find new ways of competing," says Kelly. "Stores have to learn ways, not just of building new-customer traffic, but of getting that extra 10% out of your regular customers. This," he sums up, pointing a thumb over his shoulder to the store he founded, "is the way it has to go."