It's almost a chore to shop in major Washington area department stores, where nearly half of all shoppers say service is mediocre and getting worse, according to a recent survey by The Washington Post.

In fact, local department stores rated lower than stores in other parts of the nation in terms of service the stores provided to their customers.

How bad is it? In the past year alone, one out of every three area shoppers said they stopped going to a specific department store -- or shopped at the offending store less frequently -- because of service-related problems.

That portrait of frustration emerged from two recent polls by The Post designed to compare and contrast attitudes of department store shoppers in the District, Northern Virginia and Maryland to those of shoppers nationwide.

With 61 shopping days left until Christmas, the news is grim.

Just under half -- 45 percent -- of all Washington area shoppers rate the service they get in major department stores as just fair or poor. Nationally, one of four shoppers gave similarly low ratings to service at their local stores.

A third of all D.C. area shoppers said service in their department stores was getting better, while almost half said it was getting worse. The remainder said it was staying about the same. Nationally, 42 percent of those sampled said service in local stores was getting better, and an equal percentage said it was getting worse.

And two out of three local residents sharply criticized some aspect of service they received in Washington stores.

Respondents in both surveys were asked to rate these common complaints as big, small or no problem at the major department stores in their area: long waits for service; impolite sales clerks; advertised goods that were unavailable; sales clerks who couldn't answer questions about the items they were selling; problems with the bills, and difficulty exchanging items.

The D.C. area survey disclosed that 65 percent of all shoppers considered at least one of those six complaints to be a big problem in department stores in the region.

The single biggest problem, D.C. area shoppers said, was long waits for service. Almost half of those surveyed -- 46 percent -- said lengthy waits for sales clerks was a big problem in major department stores here. No other problem was a major concern of more than 27 percent of those surveyed.

Long waits also topped the list of problems encountered by shoppers in the national sample. Slightly more than a third -- 36 percent -- said it was a "big problem" at stores in their areas.

Impolite sales clerks, sales staff who couldn't answer questions about the products they were selling, and stores that run out of advertised goods were viewed as big problems by about one out of four D.C. area shoppers. Similar percentages of shoppers in the national poll expressed the same opinions.

A relatively small number of shoppers locally and in the national survey said problems with exchange policies were a big problem.

And department stores apparently do one thing right. Only 6 percent of shoppers locally and 8 percent of the national sample said incorrect bills were a big problem at stores in their areas.

The Washington area survey disclosed clear differences in attitudes between District residents and those living in Maryland and Northern Virginia. According to the poll, slightly more than half of those respondents in Northern Virginia and 47 percent of those living in the Maryland suburbs of Washington said service was getting worse in area department stores.

But only one out of three of all respondents living in the District said service was getting worse in stores in their area, and almost half -- 48 percent -- said it was getting better. The national poll showed slight differences in attitudes between shoppers in the four regions of the nation.

The profile of shopping patterns outlined by results from the national and local polls was virtually identical.

One out of five respondents in the national sample said they shopped at a major department store "a great deal" during the past year and 42 percent said they shop some of the time. Only one out of nine said they never shopped in major department stores.

Women were slightly more likely than men to say they were frequent shoppers. Twenty-three percent of the women nationally and 17 percent of the males said they shopped in a department store "a great deal" of the time.

Occasional shoppers were more ciritical of department store service than were frequent shoppers. Only 23 percent of those who said they shopped in major stores a "great deal" said service was getting worse, while 47 percent of those who said they shopped in such stores some of the time offered a similarly negative view.

Wealthier individuals had a more negative view of shopping than did less affluent persons. Almost half -- 48 percent -- of those with incomes in excess of $50,000 said that service in major department stores in their area was getting worse. Only a third of those earning less than $12,000 a year expressed a similar opinion.

As might be expected, wealthier individuals were more frequent shoppers than less affluent respondents. Only 10 percent of those persons with combined household incomes of less than $12,000 a year said they were frequent department store shoppers, while 35 percent of those individuals in households with combined annual incomes of $50,000 or more expressed a similar opinion.

The young were somewhat more frequent department store shoppers than the old. While slightly more than one out of four -- 27 percent -- of the 18 to 30 year olds interviewed said they shopped in major stores frequently, 18 percent of those over the age of 60 said they were frequent shoppers.

The local results were based on a survey of 344 persons in the greater Washington area who said they shopped at least occasionally at major department stores in their area. The margin of sampling error for this survey is slightly more than plus or minus 5 percentage points.

Overall national results are based on a Washington Post-ABC News survey of 1,339 adults. Margin of sampling error for a sample of this size is plus or minus 3 percentage points. Both surveys were conducted Oct. 15-18.