The average shoplifter can pay for what he or she takes, looks like an average suburbanite and may be emotionally depressed, surveys taken for police and merchants show.

Despite such profiles, store detectives have problems recognizing the potential shoplifter. "They spend their time looking for the person who fits the typical (criminal) image and in most cases that is not the person at all," said Don Elkin, manager of the Springfield Montgomery Ward store.

But area stores are beefing up their campaigns against shoplifting.Last year, 9,200 persons were arrested on shoplifting charges, a 17 percent increase over the year before. Still, local retailers say they lost more than $407 million in shoplifted goods and items taken by employes last year.

In their effort to fight the shoplifter, stores are chaining valuable suede and leather items to the racks. They are using clothes inventory control tags that alert sales personnel if items leave the store without the tags removed. One-way mirrors that look like real mirrors are being installed in walls as well as the ceilings.

At Garfinckel's, for example, some store detectives, dressed like customers and unknown even to sales clerks, patrol the floors.

Surveys taken last year in the Washington area tend to confirm the view that the average shoplifter, while possibly emotionally destitute, is financially well off. The typical offender, a report by the Washington Metropolitan Board of Trade said, was a high school or college graduate whose house-hold income exceeded $20,000 a year. In suburbia, the experts said, those figures range even higher.

Those assumptions were illustrated in Fairfax General District Court last week.

Shortly after Christmas, a gray-haired Arlington housewife, upset over family problems, went shopping at Tysons Corner center.

As sales clerks at Woodward/Lothrop watched, the fortyish woman first took a coat without paying for it (later abandoning it when attendants became suspicious), then a blouse and a skirt worth about $70. Promptly arrested for shoplifting by a store detective, the housewife found herself confronting the first criminal charges of her life.

Last week, the woman, who is said to live in comfortable circumstances, pleaded guilty to the shoplifting charge in Fairfax General District Court. Prosecutors say she will probably receive a moderate fine and a suspended sentence -- a light penalty in a state where property crimes are usually treated with considerable severity. But as crimes go, shoplifting, law enforcement officials say, is in a class by itself.

"The courts tend to deal with (shoplifters) leniently because they don't know what to make of them. Not only are they first-time criminal offenders, but they are usually first offenders of any sort, juvenile or traffic or anything," said Comonwealth's Attorney Robert F. Horan Jr.

"Frequently they don't need the item. They don't even want it. But they aren't in it for the money... they are expressing hostility," said Reuben S. Horlick, a D.C. psychologist and former chief psychologist at the D.C. Department of Corrections.

"Most of the people who shoplift are... usually the people who can afford to pay for the items," said H. D. Zinn, security chief for Garfinckel's seven regional stores, "Very seldom do you find someone who is destitute. Mostly they want to get something for nothing. (And) they are just a little more difficult to spot in the suburbs."

That's because the public finds it comfortable to believe that those who commit crime in the suburbs don't live there as well, experts say. "But the figures don't show it: it is essentially a home-grown activity," said Fairfax police statistician Jared D. Stout.

"In the suburbs, people do not believe neighbors shoplift. I say to my friends," 'See that person in that house? Well he was convicted of shoplifting.' And they can't believe it, said Leonard Kolodny, a D.C. Board of Trade official from Montgomery County who has spearheaded an antishoplifting campaign.

"There is an overall feeling," says Kolodny, "that people do not shoplift at Chevy Chase or White Flint (shopping centers). That is not true at all. Wealth has nothing to do with whether a person shoplifts or not."

Last year, security personnel at Woodward/Lothrop's Columbia, Md., store arrested a doctor who, with $360 in his pocket, had stolen a pair of $15 cufflinks. At Christmas, guards at Woodies' Wheaton store locked up a Catholic priest who told store detectives he took a set of $31.50 bookends in order to support his dying mother's kidney treatment.

At the time, detectives report, the cleric had $300 in his pocket.

"I would love to document the income-levels of the people we charge with shoplifting," said Horan. "We have had doctors, lawyers, dentists, every government agency from the CIA to the IRS to the FTC, and military high-rankers... (And) in case after case, the person buys more than he steals and has so much more [money] in his pocket than [the cost of] what he steals."

Ten years ago, a study of Northern Virginia shoplifters, performed by Horlick and state probation official Anthony Gaudio, began to probe some of the reasons behind suburban shoplifting.

The typical "nonprofessional shoplifter," the authors found, was a midto-upper income housewife usually with teen-age children, some college training and no criminal record.

Practically all had not only the money in cash or checks with which to pay for the stolen merchandise, but a majority actually had charge accounts with the very stores from which they were stealing.

"These are your amateurs," said Horlick, "quite anxious people, usually with emotional problems, who are expressing hostility with regressive acts."

In one case cited, a frustrated housewife saddled with a tightwad but reasonably well-paid husband deliberately loaded up her supermarket shopping cart and then walked out without paying for the goods, just to goad her husband.

In another instance, a harried husband with a high-ranking CIA job refused to wait in line at a Dart drugstore and walked out without paying for $2.31 of tobacco, simply because his wife had ordered him home, Horlick said.

In 1974, when the Board of Trade began surveying retailers, they turned up equally startling examples: the $30,000 a year deputy director of security for a large government agency who lost his job after he was arrested for stealing $26 in cosmetics for a girlfriend; a special assistant to President Nixon with an income in excess of $35,000 who was convicted of stealing two shirts; and a bookie, fresh from a $6,000 pick-up, caught stealing two 69-cent pairs of stockings for a woman friend.

Even retailers themselves were not immune. When the Board of Trade issued its hard-hitting, anti-shoplifting posters to member stores only last year -- the ones that say "Shoplifter, a label you wear for life" -- board officials found, to their dismay, that "a great many" nonmember retailers, especially in Montgomery County, according to Kolodny, "stole the signs."