Certain animals don't look right stuffed and the Doberman pinscher is one of them.

"Isn't this cute?" says the girl in the flowered blouse as she lifts it from the top shelf and places it on the floor. It is the antithesis of cute, which is what her chubby older brother informs her in so many words. "I can't buy that -- she'll kill me," he says.

It is the weekend before Christmas here in Freddy's Zoo at the Potomac Mills Mall near Dale City, Va., and the chubby kid in the Redskin sweatshirt is walking panic's jagged edge. He is looking at the possibility of facing a hard-eyed teen-age girl with nothing but a cheap bottle of eau de Cologne by way of Merry Christmas. Like the other 100,000 people in the mall, he has come seeking deliverance.

"Does he need a present for a girlfriend?" asks a nasal-voiced salesclerk.

"Yes, a girlfriend," says the kid's mother. She has trouble with the G-word.

"We got a $24.99 mouse," the clerk says. "It's white with a red bow and a lollipop in its mouth. We got it on sale for $15.99. It's the last one in the store, in the window."

The kid cuts for daylight and races to the front of the store. He peers in the window as the woman reaches for the mouse. "Oh, that's cute," he says as she hands it to him. His face looks as though he really means it.

Moments later it is bought and bagged. The kid is smiling, but his mom has other trophies to hunt. Crossing to the other side of the hall is an adventure as ill-advised as crossing Massachusetts Avenue at rush hour against the lights. But this is no time to be timid.

They plunge back into the mall.

The Western Development Corp. of Washington must have had moments like this in mind when it opened Potomac Mills Mall in September 1985. It sits on a 150-acre tract at Exit 52 off Interstate 95 in Prince William County, roughly 25 miles south of the District. The mall cost $100 million and boasts 1.3 million square feet of retail space, making it the third largest in the area. But size is not this mall's claim to fame. Concept is.

Potomac Mills bills itself as the first bargain mall in the country and the largest in the world. Its nearly 200 shops will take in an estimated $200 million this year by satisfying needs that are at least as psychic as they are material.

Potomac Mills merchants understand that shopping has taken the place of the hunt as our principal predatory experience. Price tags feature an item's "regular" price followed by the store price, which is often 50 percent less. The regular price may be slightly inflated, the savings exaggerated, but that just increases the hunter's sense of accomplishment. "There is that challenge that 'I can get it cheaper here,' " says Sherry Lewis, the mall's marketing director.

The hunters at Potomac Mills are members of the debted middle class. A survey taken for the mall indicates that the average shopper is a 35.4-year-old woman who lives with her two-paycheck family in a single family dwelling and contributes to an income of $45,760 a year. "They are people who do want brand names," says Patience O'Connor, senior vice president for management and marketing at Western, "but they want value, too."

And they come from an ever-expanding area to seek it. One third of the mall's business comes from Maryland, the District and even relatively distant venues, such as Richmond. On a Saturday morning, the traffic slows some miles before the Dale City exit; the mall's parking lot is a shiny carpet before noon. Ninety-three percent of the people who visit buy something. "We are positioning Potomac Mills as a fun place to shop," says Lewis.

"Paul, let's see if they have any ragg wool sweaters for Joe." She is deep into middle age, moving purposefully through Cohoes, the most attractive looking store in the mall. Her husband is tagging a few paces behind.

"They're probably not here," she says as she hits the menswear department. "Oh, yes they are. Ho ho ho." She picks through a stack, finds one she likes and pulls it out. "Large ragg wool for Joe. Good, that takes care of him," she says.

Her husband is heading back toward the door when she unfolds it to take a look. "Uh-oh. These don't look very large," she says.

"He's a large," her husband says.

"I have a notion to buy him an extra large."

"One hundred and forty pounds and you're gonna get him an extra large?"

"People don't like sweaters too tight."

"Why ask him for a size if you're not going to listen?"

"Because there are larges and there are larges."

The corollary of this theory is that there are petites and there are petites. But the woman wearing the blue sweat suit in the Best Outlet Store is neither. She has just failed miserably in squeezing into a Size 6 petite something or other and is now explaining to the saleswoman, "I can wear petite, but not in a 6," she says.

Shoppers have to be forgiven their self-deceptions, though, if only because merchandisers do so much to encourage it. In the Calvin Klein outlet a T-shirt reads, "Be Young. Be Wise. Be Free." Which are lovely sentiments, but being wise might preclude your believing this shirt retails for $20. Across the mall in Raleighs a Ralph Lauren jean jacket is, according to its label, "authentic dungarees."

Up the aisle from the authentic dungarees, near the no-less-authentic sports coats, stand two bored salespeople. "There are some people, I can't stand them, but sexually, whooo!" one says to the other.

"But you can't respect them."

"And you can't respect yourself either, but whoo!"

Once you find your way out of the Raleighs outlet you will notice that you are in Neighborhood Nine. There are nine "neighborhoods" at Potomac Mills and each is prominently numbered. Nine is the hottest. It houses Hilda of Iceland, winner of the Most Oddly Named Store in the Mall award, as well as Ikea furniture, the mall's best-known store.

Ikea is dedicated to the proposition that Scandinavian society is superior to our own. Which may be true. At least it is less prone to chaos. These people are so organized they will rent you a Christmas tree for $10 and a $10 deposit. If you return your tree you get the $10 back, plus a bag of mulch that was once your Christmas tree.

The store's ideology is evident even before the man on the loudspeaker booms "God Jul {Merry Christmas}, Ikea shoppers." On your left as you enter is a glass-walled room full of children wearing numbered shifts, sliding down a board into a knee-deep pond of red, blue, yellow and white balls. People who bear no relation to the children gaze in, making this the only known example of child care as a spectator sport.

Inside, the store is a paradise of blond wood and minimalist design punctuated by the art of a man named Bengt Bockman.

The most curious Ikea custom is the naming of furniture after people. Billy bookshelves. Teddy chairs. Peter shelves. A Mary tablecloth with matching napkins. This is handy in case you feel a need to introduce your new furniture to your friends. There is also an Ingmar director's chair, which would seem to be named after Bergman, which makes you wonder who some of these other guys are and what Ivar ever did to deserve having a wall unit named after him.

On American soil once again, you are confronted with two women gliding serenely through the mob. They are wearing fur coats although it isn't the least bit chilly. One carries a sign that reads "The Fur Place." They are a long way from home, down into the low-rent district where the Job Lot Pushcart store stares across the hall at Thrills. The Job Lot store is for hard-core bargain hunters with eclectic tastes. They've got wax beans on one rack, brass lamps on the next, not to mention the best deal in northern Virginia on three-pound canisters of Gummi Candy Worms.

Thrills, on the other hand, is your headquarters for Redskins boxer shorts, inflatable Corona beer bottles, Spuds McKenzie T-shirts and stupid license plate-holders (Pamela ... Just Passed You).

A father and his son shuffle up the hall and into the Toy Works. They head straight for the superheroes aisle where the kid can imbibe some ethnic prejudices.

They look at Rambo. "Brave. Daring. Heroic. No one can stop him," it says on the package.

Beside Rambo is his enemy Nomad. He is apparently an Arab and "Devious. Traitorous. Desperate. The desert is his only home."

At least he is not General Warhawk, kind of a Soviet-Nazi mix who is "Cruel. Cunning. Obsessed. Sinister Leader of S.A.V.A.G.E. The enemy of Rambo."

"Why don't you get one of these for Jason?" the father says to his son.

"Am I paying for this?" the boy asks.

"I'll pay."

"I'm gonna get me one."

"Wait and see what you get," the father says. "My guess is that after Christmas all these things are going to go on sale."

"My guess is they'll all be gone," his son says.

Family disputes are springing up all around. In the hall outside Dollar Bill's (Everything for Less Than $1) a young husband says, "I'm sorry."

"You should be," says his wife, who walks ahead of him. Just beyond the Encyclopaedia Britannica Giveaway display a husband and wife in matching windbreakers are scouting one last present. "Tammy," the woman says. "I'm spending a little bit more on Tammy than the rest."

"You do whatever you want," her husband replies.

"Two hundred dollars she spent on us. I hope it's good, whatever it is."

This is a tough crowd for a Santa Claus. In downtown department stores he's a star attraction, but here, sitting in a red sleigh in front of gourmet popcorn and cookie stores, he's little more than a sideshow. The line before him is lengthy and choked with strollers. Parents are looking, none too fondly, at a 10-minute wait. Their problem is exacerbated by the fact that standing in line is a child's favorite thing to do. Kids keep breaking away to play on the steps leading up to the sleigh. Mothers give chase, flailing at cowlicks with long plastic combs. You can have your kid's picture taken, or a brief video made. Or you can watch your kid break into tears because you have abandoned him on the lap of a white-bearded stranger.

In the middle of the line a barely teen-age girl is holding her rambunctious baby brother. By the time they are second in line he's bawling. His sister steps out of line, patting him on the back and takes him to his stroller where he calms down a bit.

Enter Mom and Dad, who want to know what happened and why didn't she stay in line and what a big mistake it was to leave her in charge. The mother hoists the kid and rejoins the line. The father goes off to shop for a CD player. The little girl, whose heroism will never be known, disappears into the crowd.

As morning turns to afternoon, tension thickens in the mall. These shoppers know they are facing deadlines and that awkward moments await if they don't find something perfect within the next few hours.

You can sense it in Linens 'n' Things where a woman with an authentic French accent is displaying Cuisinarts.

"Does it take the string off celery?" a grandmother from Northern Virginia asks.

"This is what it does to parsley," the woman says and grinds some up.

The grandmother's sister arrives. "This is what it does to parsley but she's never used it on celery," the grandmother says. "I bet you have to take the string off yourself."

"It does coffee beans," the Frenchwoman says.

"We don't do coffee beans."

The woman mushes up a cucumber. The grandmother is unimpressed. Everyone moves away from the counter leaving a tray of diced tomatoes and sliced carrots, carved up peppers and itty-bits of cucumber. It looks like an exhibit in a vegetable memorial museum.

Shoppers interested in taking the edge off their anxiety and their hunger settle in behind a cramped table in the 14-eatery Food Court. An eatery is a place that would call itself a restaurant if it could get away with it.

At Potomac Mills the unofficial Food Court theme is fast food from many nations. Instant tacos, perpetual pizza, fried rice, barbecue. At the Cajun Kettle a shopper orders the shrimp creole. In the spirit of fairness, this dish is prepared with baby shrimp that can hide under a single grain of rice, thus surviving the meal.

Before returning to the rigors of consumption, a brief cultural sojourn is advisable. Fortunately Potomac Mills is ready: The Elvis Presley Museum, a small collection of memorabilia that has somehow been arrayed to fill a large dark room lined with display cases.

Tickets cost $2.50. In the museum you learn that Elvis' lucky number was 2001, that he used Strauss' "Zarathustra" from "2001: A Space Odyssey" in his concerts, that the address of his office was 2001, his office number was 2001 and this "interesting fact": "He died on the 16th day of the eighth month of the 1977th year." Add those numbers and you get 2001. This is the spiritual high point of a tour that includes the man's X-rays. ("Note ... Elvis' dental work.")

The Elvis Museum is just down the hall from the mall's other anchor store, Waccamaw Pottery. Waccamaw is a good place to go if you are starting a kitchen. It is also a good place to go if you are looking for enough dried flowers to reforest Oregon. Before shopping Waccamaw you would not have suspected there was such a demand for brass antelope heads.

It is a long way back up the mall to the automobile you parked when you were young and not carrying any packages. You cannot return without stopping at Swensen's, home of the Walk-Away Waffle Cone Sundae, because sugar is energy, or at least diversion.

On your way to the parking lot pay close attention to the Main Event Bridal and Formal Outlet. Pay close attention because on Saturday at least, the mannequins were real. This has the force of a "Candid Camera" scene played out over and over again as more and more shoppers steam up the mall, look, double-take, then break into laughter. Clearly this must be the work of a gifted performance artist, someone with a message about the nature of humanity, or at least fashion, or at least retailing.

"It's better than dummies," says a short, blunt woman sitting near the door.

The hall is filled with people waiting for other people to get the joke.