It's an adage that has well withstood every test of time: The customer is always right. And as the housing slump and drags on–and the overall economic climate remains less than hospitable–nowhere do those words ring with more truth than in the realm of new-home sales.

AN ILLUMINATING IDEA: Toll Brothers' Northeast Florida Design Studio maps out the selections process for home buyer convenience, from lighting options and upgrades (shown here) to finishes, hardware, and more. Photo: Courtesy Clockwork Marketing Services But in an environment where slash-and-burn pricing tactics and incentives that would have seemed outlandish during the industry's boom years continue to rule the day, where does a production home builder's best opportunities lie to convert shoppers into buyers?

It comes as no surprise to hear that a home purchase ranks among the most stressful of life events. Yet by allocating resources toward the development of a first-class design studio, big builders realize a huge amount of previously untapped potential, easing the strain of the selections process while simultaneously building rapport and helping to solidify a sale.

Toll Brothers recently celebrated the one-year anniversary of its 8,000-square-foot Northeast Florida Design Studio, located in Jacksonville. Displaying all of the builder's finishes, color selections, and upgrades in a single, convenient location, the studio features three powder rooms, two full baths, three full kitchens, and wet bar options.

"We want buyers to participate in and enjoy their home building experience from start to finish," says purchasing and regional design studio manager Dan Pearson. "Our professional design team is here to help guide buyers and coordinate their selections to ensure their new home suits their needs and lifestyle."

Among the home features highlighted are granite, Zodiac, Corian, marble, and cultured marble countertops; pavers and shutters; window treatments; closet organization systems; backsplashes, listellos, and medallions; AC upgrades; roof tiles and outdoor kitchen options; central vacuum; hardware; and cabinetry.

Professional design consultants walk buyers through the planning of each room in the home, providing expert guidance for every selection. By centralizing all design selections at the studio, buyers can incorporate the additional cost of options and upgrades directly in their mortgage for added convenience.

"[My wife, Gretchen, and I] both came in together and took a look at the models, ? and they were wonderful," says home buyer Jim Schlicker. "They helped us out right from the get-go, making it a warm experience for us, showing us through all three of the models that they have here. It's just a really great experience."

Priced from the upper-$200,000s, Toll Brothers' Northeast Florida offerings include condominiums, townhomes, and single-family homes in amenity-rich communities throughout St. Johns County.

–Lisa Brown