Mac McConnell, owner of Artful Framer Gallery, in Plantation, Fla., had always competed on price. He assumed there was no other way until he conducted a poll of 300 customers, six years ago. For six weeks he asked customers who walked in to fill out his one-page survey about themselves, where they'd heard about Artful Framer, and how they rated the store's custom framing.

About 85% of the shoppers gave the framing an excellent rating. But their priorities shocked McConnell. Price was last on the list, and quality first, followed by uniqueness. McConnell didn't rush out and raise prices. Instead he reinvented his business to satisfy customers' desires by --

* Upscaling store merchandise. Repeat customers were clamoring for quality. That gave McConnell the courage to abandon the low end. "We made museum framing the standard." He also gave customers more creative framing options by stocking 1,800 frame samples.

* Revamping customer service. Word of mouth brought in a third of his customers, so McConnell gave people more reasons to tell their friends about his shop. He added a lifetime guarantee on all work. He started calling customers a month after purchase to see if they were satisfied. And now, when he knows an order might be delayed, he gives customers plenty of notice.

* Upgrading sales training. The store's loyal customers had the income to match the quality framing they coveted -- about 80% of them checked off a household income of $40,000 or more. So McConnell taught his salespeople to take a consultative approach to selling: first talk about where the customer plans to hang the art, then talk price. The seven employees are paid salary and commissions. Turnover at the store is low.

A year after McConnell made the changes, the store's average invoice rose from $67 to $167. Over four years, overall sales have tripled, to about $600,000, and net profits are up 26%. Says McConnell, "When we changed our focus to making great frames, the money came."

-- Susan Greco