If you're over 50, you may remember walking into a store and being approached at once by one of "the help" eager to assist you.

These days, "the help" is often a misnomer.

In many stores there is no sales-person visible when you want one. And when "the help" does appear, it is not very helpful. The customer asks for a certain brand of pills and the clerk waves his hand toward a huge wall lined with 500 different types of pill bottles. "If it isn't over there," the clerk says, "we don't have it."

We bought a new television set recently. Its line cord is polarized, which means that when it is used with an extension cord, the extension must also be polarized. A polarized extension cord is therefore a standard item in hardware and electrical supply departments. One would think that any clerk with a few days of experience would know at once whether his store stocks the item and if so, where it is kept. He would, one would think, be eager to help the customer find the item. But one would be wrong.

This week I went to six large stores (Sears, Hechinger, Dart Home and three neighborhood hardware stores) in search of a polarized extension cord. In each case, I looked in what appeared to be the appropriate places before I sought help.

In none of the six stores did I find polarized extension cords. In three of the stores, when I finally got to talk to "the help," I was told with a vague wave of the hand. "If we had any, they'd be over there," with no information volunteered as to whether the item is normally stocked. In one store, the clerk had never heared of a polarized extension cord and showed great uninterest in the subject. In the Sears store, the clerk said if I hadn't found any they must be temporarily out, but he expected to receive a new order in a few days. The Hechinger store was the only one in which a clerk actually walked over to the rack where polarized cords are supposed to be kept and verified that I hadn't just overlooked them - the store was indeed sold out. He told me when the next shipment would be in.

I am well aware that the reason one sees fewer clerks on the sales floor these days is that wage rates have skyrocketed and merchants have therefore had to depend more on self-service than on old-fashioned one-on-one salesmanship. But if "the help" must now be fewer in number, shouldn't those who remain be even better trained - and indoctrinated - to help the customer spend his money? If I have already looked in vain at your supply of 500 types of pills and have failed to find what I need, what earthly good do you do me when you tell me, "If we had any, they'd be over there."?