The commodity that many consumers would like most to buy in 1988 -- time -- is not for sale. So the next best thing, products that give them more time, is high on the lists of many product manufacturers this year.

"Time is more important than money," said Chester Kane, president of the marketing firm of Kane Bortree and Associates Inc. in New York. "There are 6-year-old kids who have a tight schedule," he said.

Consumers searching for convenience products or any new product at all will have abundant choices ranging from self-stirring saucepans and digital measuring devices this year as manufacturers bring thousands of new items to the public. But those looking for a blockbuster product that will become a household word -- as the VCR or the microwave oven did a decade ago -- will be disappointed, marketing experts said.

"Right now, we're a little stagnant in that sense," said Kimberly Rawn, communications director for the National Housewares Manufacturers Association. "If someone is working on the next microwave, we're not aware of it."

However, manufacturers are improving products by making modifications that address convenience, color, texture and design, Rawn said.

One thing manufacturers are doing is to look for new subgroups of larger marketing groups, a system referred to as "niche marketing." Companies have found that while they once aimed to capture 10 percent to 15 percent of a major marketing group, the groups have now become so large that they are better served by targeting 2 percent or 3 percent and identifying a smaller, more specialized market segment, Kane said.

Because of the importance of convenience and the time constraints affecting working men and women, the kitchen will be an important area for new products.

"You could almost look to the end of the kitchen as a cooking and food preparation place in the sense that people are going for that which has already been prepared or can be 'nuked' in the microwave," said Laurel Cutler, director of marketing and planning for FCB/Leber Katz Partners in New York.

In fact, it may be difficult to overestimate the importance of the microwave oven as a factor in new products, said Martin Friedman, editor of Gorman's New Product News. "If you do not have a microwave product in 1988, your product is not guaranteed for success," he said.

The emphasis will be on lunch "because so many people now have microwaves at work," Friedman said, citing Campbell Soup Co.'s "Super Combo's," a soup and sandwich combination that can be heated in a microwave oven. The product now is being test-marketed. Dial Corp. has "Lunch Buckets" with cups of chili that can be heated in microwave ovens. Shelf stability will be another trend in convenience foods. Consumers can expect more items that don't have to be frozen or refrigerated, such as Hormel's "Top Shelf" entrees, which stay fresh without refrigeration for more than 18 months and can be heated in the microwave.

Another of the niches manufacturers are looking at might be dubbed the "guilt niche." Two-career couples, feeling guilty that they spend so much time away from their children, assuage that guilt by indulging the children in expensive toys or specialty items, experts said.

"You should see the juvenile products; they're unbelievable," Rawn said recently after seeing the thousands of new household products at one of her association's annual new product shows in Chicago. "Lets substitute quality time for a quality product," Rawn said.

Many of the children's items are very high-end items -- from special tables and chairs made to look like crayons to dishes with teddy bear faces.

"People are indulging their children," Kane said.

Revlon is coming out with a line of hair-care products just for children. There also is a whole new group of children identified by marketing experts as "tweens" -- those between 8 and 12 years old -- who are no longer kids, but aren't quite teen-agers. Sony is targeting that group with a new line of electronics products such as the "My First Sony" radio, which is tough on the outside and has easy-to-read dials.

The rich niche is the one manufacturers seem to think gets larger each year. The Monogram line of General Electric Co. kitchen appliances, which aims at the consumer willing to spend $30,000 to $60,000 to remodel the kitchen, was so successful when introduced late last year that it is being expanded this year to include more design choices, said Jeffrey Dick, a spokesman for GE's major appliance division.

The popularity of the GE line of European-style custom cabinets, cooktops, dishwashers, refrigerators and microwave ovens proves that although consumers may want convenience in the kitchen, it is no less an important hub in the home. "The kitchen's not going away, it's going uptown," Dick said.

The Monogram line appeals to those in the upper 3 percent of the marketplace -- "people who are making a statement about themselves and what they've attained," he said.

For those with enough time to cook but too little time to stir, there is an electric saucepan called Cook & Stir by Tefal that automatically stirs at a constant rate. The pan's wide blades have a non-stick coating.

Hard-working consumers also may want to reward themselves with an upscale media room, that this year will contain wider-screen televisions and the latest in electronics products.

Direct-view, rather than projection, sets with 31-inch screens that sell for about $2,000 will proliferate, experts say, and the electronics industry expects to sell 2 million cam corders for about $1,000 each.

Compact disc players, a hot product in recent years, may be challenged by digital audio tape machines if the recording industry's opposition to DAT on copyright grounds can be overcome.

The machines adapt the digital sound technology of CDs to tape cassettes.

While that battle is being waged, DAT -- which already is popular in Japan -- will be introduced in the United States in cars.

Ford Motor Co. will offer Sony DAT players in 1988 Lincoln Continentals and sound specialist Clarion Co. of Japan will deliver its own version for cars to retail stores in February. Kenwood USA has similar plans.

Prices will be high, at first -- the suggested list price for Clarion's DAT unit will be $1,750, while Kenwood's will be $2,000.

Smaller also seems to be better this year, marketing executives said, though it's unclear what particular marketing group "small" appeals to. Tiny coffee makers that produce one or two cups of specialty coffees, small microwaves and food choppers, and folding shavers and irons all are hot products.

Last, but hardly least, the Internal Revenue Service has 49 new products for the American taxpayer: It took that many new tax forms and schedules to implement the Tax Reform Act of 1986, which takes effect for 1987 taxes.

Staff writers Caroline E. Mayer, John Burgess and Anne Swardson contributed to this article.