If you see an ad saying "big silverware sale, 70 percent off list price!," take it with a grain of salt. The silver business today is infected with list prices well above the usual selling price, according to several retailers. One store's heavily advertised sale price may be the same as another store's regular price.

A New York recently advertised a silverware sale that included Towles Old Master pattern. The list price was $530 for a four-piece setting. The store's sale price was $159, which appears to be 70 percent off. But a Towles spokesman says that the Old Master setting commonly sells for around $265, so the true discount was more like 40 percent. That's still a good deal, but not as good as the ad made it sound.

Retailer Joanne Levi of Cruckemeyer & Cohn in Evansville, Ind., says that silverware often sells for about half the suggested list price. In these cases, the discount would have to be more than 50 percent before you're getting a true bargain. All in all, it's a bad situation for the consumer. Unless you take the time to shop around, you can't tell what the true level of silverware prices is

The silverware market dried up earlier this year when prices jumped. But costs have dropped about 50 percent since January, and buyers are starting to come back. Some high-priced silver, bought last fall and winter, remains in the manufacturing pipeline and is reflected in retail prices. But once this silver works its way through the system (and assuming no new metals-buying panic), it's possible that silverware prices might go even lower than they are today.

For many tableware buyers, especially young couples, silver is still out of sight. Stores, manufacturers and bridal registries all report a rising interest in silver substitutes. Among them:

Silver plate, Ken Jacob of Oneida Ltd. says that silver-plate sales this year have far exceeded expectations. In January, silver plate was the hottest tableware item at the gift industry's Atlantic City trade fair. Patterns in silver plate have not, in the past, been very imaginative or varied. But with more young couples giving up on the idea of sterling, manufacturers should respond with more and better designs.

There's no fixed amount of silver in silver plate. Manufacturers make their own determination. A common choice might be 7.5 percent silver, electrically bonded to a base metal like brass, nickel or copper. Stering, by contrast, is 92.5 percent silver and 7.5 percent copper or other metals. A five-piece place setting of silver plate might run in the area of $50.

Sterling II, a product of Wallace Silversmith. The handles are sterling; the knife blade, fork and spoon end are stainless steel. A place setting might cost $120, compared with $245 for a comparable setting in sterling silver.

Gold-plated flatware. According to the New York Bridal Registry, Carole Stupell Ltd., sales of gold-plated flateware are up sharply since September, as more young people explore alternatives to silver. A four-piece place setting of 24-carat gold bonded to stainless steel is selling for $40 to $50, Stupell told my associate, Billie Lopez.

Pewter. Kirk-Stieff, a major manufacturer of pewterware, says that sales have picked up tremendously. Pewter -- made of 92 percent tin, 7 percent antimony and one percent copper -- is too soft to be used for the business end of tableware. Only the handles are pewter; the knife, fork and spoon end are stainless steel. A five-piece setting costs in the area of $30 to $40. Pewter scratches more readily than silver, but doesn't tarnish.

Stainless steel. Always a steady seller as family tableware, stainless is now more popular than ever. There's a far greater variety of design than is available in silver plate. A five-piece setting costs around $15 to $40, depending on the quality. On sale, you might get it for half that price.

But silver lovers have not yet given up the ship. One way they're cutting prices for themselves, Ken Jacob says, is by dropping the traditional fifth piece in a place setting (the soup spoon) and buying only four pieces -- teaspoon, dinner and salad fork and knife.

A buying tip: If you're determined to own silver, but know that it will take many years to complete your set, choose one of the most popular designs. That's your best guarantee that the pattern will still be available 15 years from now when you're buying the final spoon.