The next time you're out shopping, you may be subject to more than high prices. A subliminal message--planted in the background music at some retail stores--could be discouraging you from shoplifting.

Some corporations, according to the makers of subliminal--below the threshold of consciousness--messages, broadcast undetectable suggestions encouraging employes to be more productive, cooperative . . . and to smile. There are athletes, say the purveyors, who use such messages to increase their concentration and a few therapists hand out subliminal audio cassettes to patients trying to stay off drugs and alcohol.

Experts say it's hard to know how many retail stores and businesses secretly use subliminal messages. "If you ask anyone, they'll say it's not being done," explains psychologist Anthony Greenwald of Ohio State University.

And the manufacturers themselves are divided on the sticky question of ethics regarding the sales of subliminal equipment and tapes to which the public may be subjected.

"People should know what they are hearing," maintains J.R. Jablonski, promotion director of Potentials Unlimited in Grand Rapids, Mich. "Before coming here I managed a chain of 46 stores in the western United States that wanted to use them. I said no."

Hal Becker of the Behavioral Engineering Corp., Fort Collins, Colo., one of the largest distributors of such tapes, defends their use: "We're just reinforcing the Christian-Judeo ethic of hard work and honesty."

Meanwhile, a new computer program will allow television viewers to bombard their own subconscious minds with instructions to lose weight, quit smoking or improve their sex life. While purchasers of the computer programs watch their regular television shows, Expando-Vision, by Stimutech, Inc., East Lansing, Mich., can send out viewer-choice suggestions such as, "I am a nonsmoker"; "I exercise"; "I eat good foods."

The messages are flashed so fast--at one-thirtieth of a second--that viewers are not even aware they see them. Expando-Vision promoters claim dramatic results are possible within three months.

The release of the offbeat new computer program has refocused attention on subliminal suggestion, a mysterious and controversial field of psychology that conjures up images of Big Brother and mind control.

Can messages people do not see or hear really change their behavior? Although no clinical tests have been conducted on Expando-Vision to see if the computer program actually works, psychologist and Eastern Michigan University Prof. Wallace LaBenne (Stimutech's scientific adviser), claims tests are unnecessary because the effectiveness of subliminal persuasion has already been established in countless other studies.

"I don't see how anyone," he says, "can dispute the issue."

In one recent California study, ice skaters who listened to subliminal messages for two months reported greater improvement in self-confidence and technical skill than a control group not exposed to the suggestions, according to Santa Monica psychologist Donna Capka, who conducted the research.

Subliminal-perception pioneer Becker, who has been working in the field for about 30 years, says that the first supermarket he wired for subliminal suggestions reported what store officials saw as a paltry $14,000 in loss and damage, compared with the $50,000 they had expected for those six months.

Greenwald, however, says he is unconvinced because he does not believe enough research has been conducted to determine whether subliminal messages work. "The technique may work for some people," he adds. "If you believe in it, it has a chance. It's like faith healing. It should not work at all for a skeptical person." But there is no evidence to indicate that subliminal suggestion may be dangerous or encourage people to do something they don't want to do.

So far as exposing people to subliminal messages without their knowledge and consent, Greenwald and other psychologists consider it unethical.

Expando-Vision could not be used to trick a person into quitting smoking, says psychologist LaBenne. "Unless someone is predisposed, unless they are motivated to achieve, it probably will not be effective."

Subliminal suggestion first reached the public consciousness in the mid-1950s when a movie theater in Fort Lee, N.J., repeatedly flashed the messages "Drink Coca-Cola" and "Hungry? Eat Popcorn" at patrons as they watched Kim Novak in "Picnic."

Although the results were never documented, market researchers claimed that popcorn and Coke sales increased significantly.

In 1973, the Federal Communications Commission received a complaint that a TV ad for Husker-Du, a children's toy, subliminally instructed viewers to "GET IT."

The following year the FCC warned television and radio stations that it considers the use of such ads deceptive and contrary to the public interest.

Nevertheless, debate still continues over whether such messages are used on television and in printed advertisements.

"The problem is discovering them," says FCC attorney Carter Hubbel. "Unless someone brings them to our attention, we have no idea whether they are being used."

It's just as hard to tell how many stores and businesses send out subliminal messages to unsuspecting people, says Hubbel.

"We've heard reports it's being done. How much it's being done we don't know. No one is opening up," he says, pointing out that the FCC does not have jurisdiction over the use of subliminal messages in stores and businesses.

"It's something that should be subject to regulation When it's something people can't see, you're flirting with danger. How do you know who to trust, how to police it?"

Earlier this year the California Assembly passed a bill outlawing the use of subliminal suggestion in stores and other places the public gathers unless notices of the messages are posted. The state senate is expected to hold hearings on the bill in 1984.

If passed, it would be the first such law in the country, says Becker, who since 1979 has been equipping stores and other companies with subliminal devices.

But Becker says the California legislation probably won't be the last; he expects the regulation of subliminal suggestion to increase greatly. That's one reason, he says, he's getting out of the retail store business and trying, instead, to carve a niche for himself in the lucrative self-improvement market.

This year he began producing a "Headed for Success" series of audio cassettes to improve listeners' self-confidence and nutrition. Soon, he says, he will start marketing videotapes on those and other subjects for use on home video cassette recorders.

Becker is not alone. Today a number of companies--some say as many as 15--with names like Potentials Unlimited and Midwest Research, Inc., offer subliminal messages in audio cassettes to improve everything from listeners' waistlines to their reading speed.

"What you don't hear will change your life!" proclaims one company's ad. "While your ears hear only the relaxing sounds of surf or pleasant music, your powerful subconscious mind records the suggestions and knowledge you need to take control of your life."

Becker predicts that within five years subliminal messages will be used widely in therapeutic situations. "It's an effective, very economical therapy," he claims. According to psychologist Capka, a small number of therapists already use subliminal tapes as adjuncts to their treatment. "They're certainly helpful," she says, "but they are not a substitute for therapy."