The storefront dental center is the latest wrinkle in shopping mall services, brought to you by the same economic conditions that have made most of us lump new houses, cars -- and regular tooth care -- into the luxury frill category.

Offering both day and evening hours, walk-in service and prices it says are 15 percent to 40 percent below national averages, The Dentist -- a retail operation, not a clinic -- opened outlets in Laurel Centre Mall in July and in the Fredericktowne Mall Sept. 2.

According to marketing director Neil Tauber, the idea is that if you can get your teeth fixed after work, in comfortable mall surroundings, and pay less as well, the procedure may be so painless you won't be able to pass it up.

Actually, the concept of storefront dentistry has been gaining popularity since dentists got legal permission to advertise several years ago and began locating wherever consumer traffic was heavy: in Sears stores in California, discount chains in New York, and a shopping mall in Boston, to name a few. It was dentistry's answer to retail vision centers.

What distinguishes The Dentist from other dental centers in the Washington area, according to its 28-year-old owner, Georgetown dentist Harold Seigel, is that "it's the first independent operation inside of malls." Unlike a clinic, it works "like any private office that has associates," where you can see your own dentist each time unless you request a change. For unusual problems, there's also an orthodontist and an oral surgeon right on the premises, and maybe a children's dentist later if the demand is great enough.

Why is it cheaper? According to Tauber, who helped mastermind The Dentist after managing a group of dental centers in New York, low prices are made possible by high patient volume, mass purchases of "top-of-the-line" equipment, and elimination of billing. You pay for services as they're rendered, although for long-term treatment, you pay only a portion each time.

Because Tauber manages the business end of the operation, each dentist "spends 99 percent of his time at his chair" rather than "30 to 40 percent on administrative functions."

In addition, he adds, "dentists' fees are too high in general. We can provide the same service or better for less."

So far, the idea seems to be appealing to area shoppers. Tauber says the Laurel location is seeing 50 to 60 patients a day. In Frederick, 10 days after the facility opened it was handling between 40 and 50 patients . . . "absolutely amazing" for a new practice in its first month of operation. Seventy to 80 percent of those coming in with a direct mail coupon for a free checkup and X-ray were making appointments for follow-up treatment, many of whom had not been in a dentst's office for years.

For the 16-plus dentists who work at the two facilities full- and part-time, the setup can also be appealing. "Dentists have the highest rate of suicide and divorce of any profession," Tauber says. "A private practice is very demanding." At The Dentist, there is both the stimulation of being among colleagues and freedom from most administrative details.

"Most dentists are not great business people," Tauber says, and many private practices have failed in the past few years because of poor administration. At The Dentist, he adds, "We're a business. We realize that and we're putting serious business practices to work."

Among those practices are direct appeals to consumers through the mail, on radio and through fee schedules posted where patients can see them before they undertake treatment. "My big objection to my family dentist," Tauber says, "Was that he'd say, 'Neil, it's going to be $300; you have a lot of work.' Here patients know what they're paying for. It's not something they can't understand if you take the time to explain it."

But many private dentists still object to large-scale advertising, saying that dental centers often offer inexperienced practitioners and prices which, according to at least one study, are not really lower. Tauber says he thinks the main objection is that "the profession doesn't want it to get too flambuoyant. When you get on the radio and have dental jingles, I think the profession will go up in arms . . . and rightly so." The Dentist will continue to advertise heavily, "but there are certain guidelines you stay in. You want to be like McDonald's."

Criticism or no, it may be an idea whose time has come. Seigel says he's actively looking for other area malls in which to locate.