LAS VEGAS, JAN. 10 -- As Richard Thalheimer strolls through the acres of flickering gizmos, gadgets and gear here, he ponders a question weighing on the minds of all 70,000 people attending the consumer electronics industry's largest new-products expo: What will Americans buy in a recession?

Thalheimer, president of the Sharper Image, the upscale retailer and catalogue marketer, thinks he has found the answer in items that reduce stress: chairs that provide massages, eyeglasses that emit light patterns said to soothe the brain, and electronic organizers to simplify a life already made more complex by high technology.

"Anything that relates to massage or mental therapy is selling well. I know it's because {people} are buying relief," Thalheimer said, happy to have made some sense out of the chaos and cacophony at this annual high-tech bazaar.

Whether you call it relief, escapism or pure fun, everybody in this mecca of excess and optimism has their own idea how to entice Americans into parting with their dwindling supply of extra cash.

Underneath the veneer of positive thinking, though, is the nagging reminder that their wagers made in the past few years haven't been particularly successful -- the Electronics Industry Association said today that U.S. consumer electronics sales grew at a below-inflation rate of 3.7 percent last year, to $33 billion, a dismal rate compared with the go-go years of the 1980s.

This year's growth, estimated at an even slower 3.3 percent, may come from some of the big-ticket items lining the aisles here -- the bigger, brighter televisions, the crisper-sounding compact disc players and stereos, the smaller video cameras, the computers and accessories geared to the increasingly popular home office.

But a surprising number of manufacturers and retailers are counting on a return to the basics. If there is a way to promote gadgets to cope with concerns about health, safety and a cleaner environment, it is here.

For the health conscious, there are wrist watches that keep tabs on much more than just your heartbeat. A new Casio model measures blood pressure, a special concern in stressful times. Elexis Corp. of Miami is promoting a $50 watch with a built-in sensor to detect when you've been exposed to too much sun -- calculated, of course, to account for your skin type and variety of suntan lotion. "We may have a recession, but if you're out in the sun you don't want to get skin cancer," said Elexis President Frank Bianco.

From ceiling-mounted units that emit high-frequency sound to chase away fleas, to personal air cleaners, vendors are pandering to consumers' desire for a cleaner home and office. Playing straight into growing concerns about the environment is one of the hottest low-ticket items -- rechargeable batteries.

Sanyo is even offering a designer-quality battery recharger, a sleek black device about the size of a pack of cards that will recharge four AA batteries simultaneously. The cost: about $20. "It's adorable," Thalheimer said.

Seeking to find what may be the ultimate silver lining in troubled times, Electronic Security Products of California has concocted a $300 car alarm system that will bark out warnings when someone steps too close to a car. When a passerby or would-be intruder steps back, it blurts out a "thank you," in any one of six languages. "We found that because of the recession there are more break-ins, and that's more sales to us," said vice president Jeffrey Nykerk.

Others are hoping to lure consumers by adding more functions to form -- a flashlight incorporated into a travel alarm clock or a microwave oven that will sense when food is cooked. The oven, a Sharp Electronics Corp. product so far available only in Japan, comes with a cooking container that includes a blade designed to mash potatoes while they are cooking.

Recession or no recession, one thing electronics companies hate to do is take away the frills. They'll cut prices, offer promotions, stretch out payment schedules to dealers and add more dazzling features before they'll tout stripped-down models of their products.

"Our job with the glitz ... is to convince people they really want things with more features," said John McDonald, president of Casio Inc., the U.S. division of the Japanese consumer electronics firm. The more frills, the more profits. Said McDonald: "You need the stripped products, but you hope the consumer will overlook them."