Shoppers comb idly through the racks of $3.49 polyester sleeveless blouses and 50-cent pairs of platform shoes in the Morgan Memorial Goodwill store in downtown Boston. At first glance, the store is well stocked with the typical freewheeling thrift-shop hodgepodge of clothing colors and styles.
But these lean times are pinching even Goodwill in the economic vise.
Though more people are looking for bargains here than ever before, ''We're not getting as many donations,'' says assistant manager Leslie Keeler. Goodwill depends on donations of cast-off clothing and household goods from individuals and department stores. Both people and stores are hanging on to their belongings longer now.
* Feet up on their desks, lounging back in their chairs, a band of imported-car salesmens howl at a joke among themselves.
''None of those guys has to worry about making a sale - they're all pulling in more than $30,000 a year, easy,'' says Tom Tate, nodding in the direction his fellow salesmen at Woburn Foreign Motors, outside of Boston. Suede-jacketed customers browse around the sleek new model offered by Jaguar, whose sales are up more than 100 percent across the country so far this year. The list price: upwards of $31,000.
''But it's not just Jaguars that are selling well,'' Mr. Tate says. ''It's all the high-line cars. Mercedes are selling well, too, and Jaguars are cheap in comparision to the Mercedes' $45,000 price tag.''
''We haven't felt the recession at all,'' he says.
''People with money are the only ones buying cars now, and they're buying the luxury models,'' says Robert McIlwaine of the American International Automobile Dealers Association.
* It's a two-tiered recession.
''It is severely affecting low- and middle-income people, and not touching upper-income people,'' says Mr. McIlwaine.
As nearly always, the wealthy seem unaffected by the economic storm.
Boston travel agent Bonnie Ferguson says that the most expensive resort hotels in the Caribbean are already nearly sold out for the winter season.
Cadillac, the US-built car most synonymous with the word luxury, was one of the only American cars that sold better this past September than a year ago. Cadillac sold 6,000 more cars, while Chevrolet sold 112,000 fewer Chevettes and 90,000 fewer Citations, and Chrysler sold 39,000 fewer Reliants. American Motors sold almost twice as many Concords in September 1981.
The Dilettante, a select Seattle candy shop where chocolates go for $18 a pound, recently had to move its chocolate-making operation to another location to make room for the crowds. And the company just opened a new shop in Oregon, where the unemployment rate just hit 11 percent.
But wealthy people alone do not an economic recovery make. Merchants need more than their wealthy clientele to pull them through these difficult economic times. Whether or not there is an impending recovery teeters breathlessly on what the middle-income consumer decides to buy this fall and winter, some experts say - and whether they spend any money at all.
So here's the good news: Starting now, and likely lasting for the rest of the holiday shopping season, the word is that if you have any money, now is the time to spend it.
The deals may not get any better. Even purveyors of luxuries need to widen their markets and stimulate sales.
* Sales of gourmet Godiva chocolates, at $17.50 a pound, are up 400 percent over the past four years. But for the two weeks right before Christmas, Godiva is throwing in a free quarter-pound box with every one-pound purchase.
* Cruise ships are trying to fill their cabins with customers by offers of free air fare to the ships' ports and other inducements. The Queen Elizabeth 2 offers the choice of a free, one-way Concorde jet flight, or a free seven-day trip to London.
* Buy a small Chevrolet, and get a ''free'' trip for two on Eastern Airlines. (This actually tacks an extra $175 on the purchase price of the car.)
* Fly extensively on many domestic airlines and, if you're entered in one of their mileage games, the more air miles you clock the more free trip tickets you win.
Merchants are out to compete for your dollar. For shoppers with money to spend, it can be a boon.
The retail industry in Los Angeles in a good example. According to Women's Wear Daily, the fashion industry trade paper, the four major department stores in Los Angeles are fighting it out in a no-holds-barred promotion battle. Special offers and price cuts dominate the stores' newspaper ads.
''The competiton is more intense this fall,'' William McElvey, vice-president of Bullock's department store, told WWD. ''You will be hard pressed to find regular-price advertising, and prices are getting sharper and will continue to do so as we get closer to the Christmas season.''
The cut-rate competition isn't just in Los Angeles. Storeowners everywhere are trying to persuade customers to pry open their wallets. Flipping through any daily newspaper, page after page of department store advertisements trumpets sales. Not just sophisticated fashion photographs, mind you, but sales. Price cuts. Promotions. Special deals. That, retail industry analysts say, is the name of the shopping game for the rest of the fall - and probably for the rest of the Christmas season.
Despite recent dismal economic news, some experts are forecasting steadily improving retail sales this fall and a chipper Christmas selling season. For example, Jack Smallwood, publisher of Retail Trends and Forecasts newsletter in Chicago, says all the signs are right for accelerating retail sales: the stock market soars high, while interest rates, mortgage rates, and the inflation rate nose-dive.
Mr. Smallwood says lower interest rates especially are supposed to imbue the consumer with new confidence to buy.
But shoppers also watch the unemployment rates.
''Everyone's got a friend who's out of work,'' says Walter Forbes, head of a Connecticut-based computer shopping service called Comp-U-Card of America Inc. ''We see no indication that retail sales are going to be strong. Almost every store has everything on sale already. Consumer confidence is the key indicator, and that confidence is still low. People are still paying off their credit cards and building up their savings.''
Sales are no longer seasonal. As early as July, ''Labor Day'' sales started slashing the price of up-to-date fall fashions. ''Columbus Day'' sales started in late September. Smallwood suggests that consumers not squirrel away extra dollars to shop the traditional January sales: Store owners are cutting it so lean on inventory that the shelves may be bare by New Year's. Sales will be weak on traditional '' big ticket'' merchandise: washers, dryers, TV sets, Smallwood says. But all the analysts surveyed for this story expect sales to be strongest on nontraditional durables: home computers and computer games. James Magid, a consumer electronics analyst, says the lower prices for the personal computers, especially the model offered by Texas Instruments for $200, pressures the computer game people to lower their prices, if buyers can get a complete computer for the price of a few video games.
But Smallwood expects clothing to be strong as a gift item, ''because people will give staples and necessities as gifts rather than luxuries.'' A retail industry analyst, Susan Schmierer, says holiday gifts this year may lean toward the single silk blouse bought on sale instead of the more expensive food processor or television set.
For both gifts and necessities, increasing numbers of shoppers are turning to a new generation of good-quality secondhand clothing stores, whose growth has been spurred by the economic crunch. In Oak Park, Ill., a secondhand children's clothing store called Short Stuff is packing them in. Manager Lois Pearlman says more people are bringing in their old baby clothes to sell instead of handing them down to neighbors. ''Maybe that's a sign of the importance of money now.''
Loehmman's, T.J. Maxx, and Handmoor's are among the better-known store names that offer name-brand merchandise at lower prices. And even more-established discount store names such as Zayre's are enjoying a business boom, as evidenced by the 24.5 percent sales increase the company reported in September. Toys-R-Us, a discount toy-store chain, has sales up some 30 percent over last year, says New England area manager Ken Jones. But others, such as K mart, lost business (September sales were down 3.6 percent from a year ago), and F.W. Woolworth recently decided to close its more than 300 Woolco discount stores.
Smallwood, for one, sees the discount store phenomenon as a temporary result of the hard economic times. ''When we get on other side of business cycle,'' better times, in other words, ''normal retailing customers regain their clout, since suppliers will be less likely to serve the off-price people.''
In the meantime, department stores are responding to the threat of the discounters by concentrating on faster-moving merchandise, leaving no shelf space for items that don't sell, Smallwood says. The result: Consumers will have to shop around instead of finding all they want in one place. ''There will be very few full-line department stores around.''
The search for the lowest price has made hard times good for the electronic shopping service, says Walter Forbes of Comp-U-Card.
For a $25-a-year subscription fee, customers can take advantage of the lowest of the thousands of prices the service gathers from across the country, Forbes says. The service will then order and ship the lowest priced product to the customer.
A customer can either access the data base of 60,000 name-brand items on a home computer, or call a toll-free number and get the information from the operator. Forbes says the recession has brought in more subscribers, as low prices get more important. And as low prices become more important, they're also getting more pervasive.
''We're getting better and better prices, because there's a lot of supply out there, and people are offering their stuff for less.'' While Comp-U-Card's big sellers are video recorders and - what else? - home computers, it sells everything from cars to furniture to sterling silver.
Recession spending has turned inside out the problems faced by clients of the city of Chicago's debt counseling service. Director Nancy Bellew says she has as many clients as she did two years ago.
''But there is a difference in the nature of the problems clients are bringing in,'' Ms. Bellew says. In better times, people simply bought too much, overextended their credit. Now, they struggle to maintain their standard of living, to make ends meet.
The metamorphosis started in the fall of 1980 when the steel companies in the Chicago area started laying off employees, and many companies stopped paying overtime wages. What had been ''pin money'' from a second salary started going for necessities instead of luxuries.
Among the ways she recommends that her clients tighten their belts during the lean times:
* Buy holiday gifts early, when sales are plentiful, instead of waiting until the last minute.
* Buy food at a food cooperative.
* Can and freeze fruits and vegetables bought in season at a farmer's market.
* Take advantage of ''city freebies,'' cultural events paid for by city governments.
* Buy clothes at discount outlets or secondhand clothing stores.
* Pace holiday buying, instead of trying to squeeze all the gifts out of one paycheck.