This time, the Grinch actually is stealing Christmas. Or to put it more precisely this holiday buying season, loads of grinches: fat grinches, tall grinches, grinches with Mercedes and grinches on foot, all grinchily grinching around the retail scene this Christmas.

They don't like to shop. They browse with belligerence. They don't want to spend on anything costing more than the price of the shopping bag they take it home in. And they are making retailers nearly homicidal.

"Sometimes this year you feel like you just want to strangle some shoppers," said Mrs. Lattu, a heretofore kindly looking and elegantly proper woman who peddles place settings and linen doilies at Georgetown's eclectic "gift boutique" Little Caledonia. She is not the sort who provides her first name to strangers.

"They are upset about not being able to spend money this year what with the economy," she said of the would-be shoppers, "so they take it out on us.

"I mean my goodness gracious -- as if we were to blame."

The grinchy customer is the most prevalent type of holiday shopper out there this Christmas season, according to salespeople interviewed recently on the front line of the retail battle in Georgetown. They are quick to stereotype the many kinds of shoppers that cross their threshold -- especially the ones who leave a trail of cash register gloom in their wake.

The Grinch is the leader of the persnickety pack. Such shoppers don't know what they want, or if they really want anything at all, thank you very much!

"You can see them from a mile away, since they zoom up and down the aisles armed with an attitude," said Carlo Anderson at Sheila's Hallmark Card Shop. "They don't like anything here -- not the cards, not the bells, not the stuffed animals. There is no festive feeling just to relax and have a good time."

Like the woman who brought a $4 card for a friend and then quickly exchanged it for an 85 cent one when she found out the price of the first card. "She said nobody was worth that much this year," said Anderson. "It's like the spirit of giving just flew out the window."

The Revolving Door Browser is a close sibling of the Grinch, with Scrooge-like overtones. This type is also known as The Agonizer, since they come back frequently to shop before buying -- typically and, for the retailer, frustratingly -- a $12 item.

"I can't tell you how many times I have said 'Back agaaaain???' to a customer," said Tony Perez of Britches Great Outdoors. "I mean, three, four, five times for each person before they decide and then I am sure they'll change their mind before they get out the checkbook."

It's the case on even the smallest items. "People will make snap decision to buy houses and cars, but they can't seem anymore to be able to make a small decision like what mug to get," said Luciana Caleb of Georgetown Coffee, Tea and Spice. "Impulse? Forget it."

The main impulse-killers are the List Makers and Comparison Nuts, first cousins to the Grinch and Browser. The List Maker makes a list, checks it twice, then checks it yet again. The Comparison Nut knows all the prices everywhere, comparison-shopping compulsively. This pair is often combined in the same person.

"I'd say the impulse buyer is gone this year and more and more people are really careful about everything they put in their baskets," said Lisa Slawson of the Red Balloon toy store. "They do not deviate from the lists they have made and seem to know exactly what they want and how much they want to spend."

These types can drive retailers crazy. "They must spend a fortune on gas figuring out what everything costs everywhere, so they just insist on letting you know what every competitor up and down the East Coast is charging and it makes you feel like a criminal if you charge a dime more," said one salesperson who did not want to be named. "But I figure, those people must be like that in {other aspects} of their life and are driving someone else even more nuts."

A more insidious retailing nightmare is the Garbo Shopper, in-law to Grinch and married to Browser. This isolated consumer wants no help, asks no questions, dislikes attention.

"Even if I am only being friendly, they run to the other side of the room as if I have the flu or something," said Perez of Britches. "It's like they think I'm going to force them to buy something. They always say, 'Noooo, thank you, I do not want help. I am juuuust browsing'"

The Garbo Shopper just wants to be alone. "I just leave those types be since they are not going to buy until they are ready to," said William Myers of Hats In The Belfry. "You just bother them if you pressure and they can get angry."

Not angrier than the Shopper From Hell -- the rude, tyrannical anti-shopper, who treats salespeople like servants and the store like a conquered territory.

"About 99 percent of the customers are polite," said Jim Welch of Appalachian Spring, a craft store. "But that other 1 percent can be difficult for us."

Extremely difficult. "They talk out loud and insult your merchandise and act like you're invisible," said Ed Levine of Uptown Arts.

"Picky, picky, picky. Nothing is ever good enough for them and everything is overpriced," agrees Levine's co-worker Jack Keegel. "They just go too far."

They can go as far as sticking their hands in the coffee beans and eating bonbons from the penny-candy barrels, said Caleb of Georgetown Coffee, Tea and Spice. "I mean, really, we react to how the customers treat us and the store," she said. "We can't help reacting badly when people act this way."

A close relation to this type is the Couple From Hell -- spouses who take a lot of a salesperson's time, ask loads of questions and are about to buy something when one says no. Retailers say it's nearly impossible to satisfy two people at once, especially concerning gifts for old Uncle Joe and Aunt Stella.

That's why retailers are always on the lookout for the Wrap-It-Up-Forget-the-Price customer of the '80s, with their I'll-take-a-dozen-and-two-more-for-me attitude. This type can be desperate or just extravagant and generous.

Each retailer has his or her own ideal customer.

"The person who knows exactly what he or she wants and pays for it right away," said Welch of Appalachian Spring.

"Older men with young dates, since they want to impress," said Little Caledonia's Lattu.

"Drunk shoppers on Friday nights -- one for them, one for me is their attitude," said Perez of Britches.

"The ones that just want to come in and get it over with," confided one salesperson at a clothing chain. "They put themselves at your mercy."

But nothing, even the prospect of a prostrate customer with a wallet full of credit cards, is as good as the Shopper From Heaven.

On the Christmas wish list of every merchant, this customer loves to shop, is interested in it, has fun, wants sales help and, best of all, is merry to the sales staff. Retailers wish hard even up to closing time on Christmas Eve for the holiday harpies to be transformed into these shoppers with their angelic mixture of marvelous mercantile mood and mucho money.

"When people ask questions, get excited about the products, want you to educate them and say good evening and good night, it's really gratifying and makes it a joy to work," said Trish Matthews of The Body Shop.

"It's fun when people are open to suggestions -- like they try on a hat they never thought of and it makes their day and they leave the store smiling," said Myers of Hats In The Belfry.

"Customers that are ready for fun and see shopping as an entertainment and not as a drudgery are the ones I look out for, since they make the season festive," said Anderson of Sheila's Hallmark Card Shop.

"They have," said Little Caledonia's Lattu, as visions of jolly shoppers danced in her head, "a twinkle in their eye."