AS you pick your way through the throngs eagerly snapping up the latest adult game for Cousin Pete, vest for Dad, sweater for Aunt Marguerite, do you ever wonder why you get lost so easily in those multilevel department stores in suburban malls?

Do you ever wonder why you can find a half dozen Christmas displays of jewelry, women's accessories or perfumes but can't find the rest rooms, the restaurant or the elevators?

Do you ever wonder why you walt into a store looking for one little gift and walk out loaded down with two large bags?

It's no accident that you lose your way, that you buy more than you intended to.

Stores throughout the Washington area and the country are spending millions of dollars on design to make you want to buy, to build in every possible opportunity to beguile you the consumer into consuming even more.

Designers talk of sight lines, market surveys, lifestyles, the benefits of incandescent versus fluorescent lighting, of "suggestive selling," of excitement, drama.

The competition for your business is at a fever pitch -- virtually every major department store in the Washington area is revamping the look of individual departments and of whole stores. Woodward/Lothrop leads the list with a $59 million program of remodeling and new construction.

Why all this bustle over store design? Just look at the items offered for sale in most department stores as you browse for Christmas gifts -- they are almost identical. Blue jeans at Wards are still blue jeans at Saks Fifth Avenue. The price, the styling, even the quality may differ -- but they are still blue jeans. So, the name of the game is presentation.

"The whole idea is to present things so that people see something and feel that they can't live without it," says Barbara D'Arcy, Blooming-dale's vice president and director of merchandise presentation.

To help you feel that uncontrollable urge to buy, designers turn to a set of dramatic ploys that pass unrecognized to the untutored eye. You can learn a lot from talking to people like Chester Gerber, one of the country's leading store designers -- an expert on designing to sell. Gerber and his New York firm put together Blooming-dale's first entry into the Washington market -- their Tysons Corner store.

"We base our entire design concept on arriving at a series of miniature stage sets or environments," says Gerber.

The store is a stage set with the customer as actor, the designer as director. Events are staged to attract you -- everything from a flock of lifelike baa-ing sheep in a women's sportswear department at the fashionable Burdines department store in Florida to a chestnut vendor at Bloomingdale's in White Flint.

"You have to plot out sight lines in a store," says Kenneth Walker, the New York designer behind the flock of sheep. "You want the customer to move from one event to another. If it's done well, it's like moths to light."

The old rule of store design was to set up a kind of grid pattern with various departments as islands within the grid. The stores' doors were located at the ends of wide, vinyl-tiled avenues of the grid, the side "streets" led to other departments. Harsh fluorescent lights were relieved only by an occasional chandelier to indicate the better dress department. Clothes were displayed on stiff-necked, pasty-faced manikins. In short, stores were sterile warehouses for merchandise.

In the past decade, however, shopping center and department store designers have charted a new path for you. The average shopper used to spend less than half an hour per visit, and buy only one item. Today it's estimated that people spend about an hour and a half per visit. We linger because shopping centers and department stores are designed with a calculated timelessness about them. There are no clocks, for example, at Tysons Corner, White Flunt or Lake Forest. There is only one kind of time, time to buy.

You lose your sense of direction as well as time as you pick your way through a succession of "miniature stage sets" or boutique-like departments, diagonal walls jut out to draw you away from traffic areas so subtly that you may not immediately realize that you have left your intended path. Just finding the escalators can be a challenge. To reach them from almost any entrance in newer stores, you must wend your way through several departments. At Bloomingdale's White Flint store, tiny shops fill the corridors between the up and down escalators, creating a new opportunity to waylay the unsuspecting buyer into an impulse purchase. Say you want an item on the third level. You pick your way through the traditional jewelry, cosmetics, handbags, and women's accessories; you get off on two, walk through either the minishop between the escalators or the departments on either side to reach the nest up escalator. It's easy to see why store planners prefer you to take an escalator -- it is a wonderful way to forcibly expose you to much more merchandise than a more direct route to your destination via elevator. Elevators in most department stores tend to be buried in the building's bowels.

The placement of departments within the store is not primarily for the convenience of customers. It is a question of what is known in the trade as "real estate." Some departments are more important pieces of "real estate" than others. First-floor departments offering quick pick-up items like cosmetics, ladies' accessories or hosiery provide high volume, high profit-margin sales. Another traditional first-floor occupant is the men's department, since men are believed to avoid time-consuming shopping.

Nonmerchandise services like rest rooms, the credit office or a restaurant generally are located in more inaccessible locations, forcing the customer to "walk the store" to reach them. "After all, you wouldn't want a customer to walk in, pay her bill, and leave," comments one store planner.

At "the limited," a nationwide chain of women's apparel shops (located here in the Mazza Gallerie, Lake Forest and several other suburban shopping malls), the use of mirrors has enabled the chain to reduce the square gootage they rent an average of 10 percent or more. To sell more in less space, "the limited" uses mirrors and a device called "vertical merchandising," which simply means they hang items for sale all the way up the walls to the rafters. The Door Store, Woodies "Roomworks" shop and Hecht's sheet department at Montgomery Mall all use the same king of display techniques.

Once found only in clothing departments, mirrors are now used to expand one's sense of space in a small department, to reflect light on merchandise, to make a little bit of merchandise seem like twice as much and to reflect merchandise in neighboring departments -- the subtle side of sight lines.

Mirrored walls enable you to see yourself passing from one display of enticing coordinated clothing to the next, reminding you that you are walking around in last year's clothing -- a subtle but often convincing message.

Real drama comes to the sales floor in the form of manikins looking like something out of Madame Tussaud's Waxworks. At Hecht's new Lake Forest store, groupings of fashionably dressed manikins rest on platforms topped with glass to allow concealed "up" lights to highlight figures in slice-of-life situations. Props -- anything from antique furniture to a top hat and cane, are used to enhance the setting. If the sight lines of a store are properly devised, the shopper sees these frozen dramas from across the floor. The lighting, the poses, pull you towards them (and incidentally, the merchandise that surrounds them) to see what they are doing, what they are wearing.

Color is another technique used to send a message to the shopper. At the Yves St. Laurent boutique at SaksJandel's Chevy Chase store, the walls are painted in a deep rich rust tone, while next door, the women's apparel shop is done in soft gray tones.

"Grays convey elegance," says Bowen Bauer, design coordinator for Kenneth Pfeiffer & Associates, the New York firm working on the total renovation of Woodies' downtown store. "It is the merchandise that draws the higher income customer to a higher priced department -- a Calvin Klein room, or a Ralph Lauren room, for example," says Bauer. "Often these areas don't provide any more service by sales people than a budget shop. The customer still helps herself, but she is given a little more space to make her decision in."

Generally, lighter, brighter tones convey lower budget items, a feeling reinforced by the paucity of breathing space in low-price departments. And ironically the linoleum floorcoverings that say "cut-rate" cost more these days than the carpeting you find elsewhere in the building.

A lower-priced young juniors department usually is signaled by crowding of merchandise, and bright colored walls and floors. Often the visual color is complemented by musical color -- disco music. "We use music in young juniors departments," says Bloomingdales' D'Arcy, "because we want the young people to be at home when they buy.They typically surround themselves with the same kind of music -- it's part of their lifestyle."

Amarket study about the kind of shopper who would be drawn by the subway to the city's only store with direct Metro access followed by careful research into how those people live led Woodies to transform their grungy plain pipe racks bargain basement into the trendy "Down Under" shop filled with young juniors and upbeat housewares. "We get a lot of lunchtime trade," says Woodies chairman Edwin Hoffman, "and we knew our market would be a lot of working women, a lot of singles, both male and female, so we decided to put those departments that would appeal to that group in the Down Under area of the store."

Not all design decisions are based on market studies. Many trends follow fashions in dress, in residential tastes. Just as the natural look in clothing and home furnishings is "in," so too is the natural look in store design.

"We want people to be able to picture the merchandise on their backs, in their homes," says Gerber. "People feel freer to make buying decisions when they are in a comfortable but exciting environment."

With all this comfort, there must be excitement.There is a delicate balance in the presentation of items to motivate you to buy. As much as possible stores want to make items accessible to you to touch, feel, and allow you to serve yourself, At the same time, they want to enshrine objects so that you feel them so precious that you can't live without them, especially during this holiday season. The shoe department on the third level at Bloomingdale's White Flint store is an example of that balance. Personally designed by Bloomie's head designer D'Arcy, it is a small department on several levels. Platforms near the main traffic area hold a large number of spotlighted shoes. The platforms are just high enough so that the shoes are within easy reach of your hand -- no bending or reaching required. Up a few softly carpeted steps is a showcase with the latest fashions encased in glass an if sculpture instead of footwear.

"We do that to create excitement, to tell the shopper what is new and different in shoes," says D'Arcy. A livingroom like conversation pit brings you to softly upholstered seats where you can sit and try on shoes as you gaze at a handsome tapestry on a wall or at the shoe-sculpture displays. Between the risers of the low steps that carry you from one level to the next are soft lights which not only prevent you from falling, they highlight the most important items of attire of the moment -- your shoes. Your own old pair inevitably looks terrible in this light -- while new shoes, on soft carpet with foot-level lighting, have added appeal to the potential purchaser.

"We do a lot with different levels," says D'Arcy. "It expands the sense of space, draws people in, adds drama, and makes things seem important."

Are we walking into a velvet-lined Skinner box when we shop? Not really -- but store design is more than just another pretty face.