I was the eighth customer in a snail-like supermarket checkout line designated "Nine Items or Less, No Checks." That's when I understood, really for the first time, why our nation's economy has reportedly changed from sluggish to stagnant. A major factor in declining international competitiveness is to be found in America's immobile checkout lines.

By the time I got to the head of the line I understood the reason for my delay. Of course, part of the whole stall is calculated company policy. As a Safeway Stores spokesman told Nation's Restaurant News, "One of our missions is to keep people in stores longer." But this was more than that. The checkout clerk, like almost all contemporary cashiers, was talking on the telephone. American consumers have been callously put on hold while salesclerks and cashiers babble, prattle and gossip.

This is more than personal pique; it's a national annoyance. Last year, pollster Peter Hart interviewed 2,064 adult consumers for The Wall Street Journal, asking what really ticks them off about service in American business. "Staying home for delivery or service people who fail to show" not surprisingly led the list of pet peeves. But right behind "poorly informed salespeople" and mentioned by a full 25 percent of those polled was "salesclerks who are on the phone while waiting on you."

If the key to retail success is understanding and satisfying customers, then failure must be inevitable when the cashier or salesperson is thoroughly preoccupied. The customer is an inconvenience to the employee's phone call, but rarely an interruption. In the swanky stores, the snazzy employees use facial and hand gestures that would do justice to Marcel Marceau as they ring up a customer's sale, while all the time carrying on her first priority: the endless phone conversation.

The more people talk on the phone, the less money they and their employees make. Missed sales and angry ex-customers are one consequence. Another is the growth in what are called out-of-market, mostly catalogue, sales, which could by 1995 capture one-third of the retail market.

There was a time, honest, when shopping was a social experience. There was a time when major department stores were graced with informed, helpful and interested employees who took pride in being your personal shopper. They knew whether whatever we wanted came in blue and in a smaller size. With the continuing absence of customer service, shopping has become an unpleasant and irritating burden.

If at the posh store, the customer gets wordless, manicured hand signals, the customer at the middle-class chains more often gets bored, surly indifference from the cashier or clerk. These stalwarts of the telecommunications revolution turn out to be dropouts from the information explosion, rarely knowing or caring about where an item is located or when it might be expected.

You can almost feel the anger in your fellow consumers who are subjected to such treatment. By a certain age, all of us learn to live with an unavoidable level of rudeness. But contemporary American retailing has elevated offensive disinterest into an art form. American shoppers would agree with the poet who wrote that indifference is "the worst sin toward our fellow man."

And along with a Social Security number and withholding, every employee seems to have his or her own phone. The cashier at my parking garage has three lines and call waiting. The man who is there to give directions at my subway stop is usually busy on his push-button phone. I have to wait to ask the movie theater cashier what time the show is over because he is on the phone, undoubtedly talking to a friend or lover at the airline counter, the parking garage or the bank. Alexander Graham Bell has a lot to answer for.

That night at the supermarket I found out with whom my distracted cashier was laughing on the phone. It was another cashier six lines away. Of course, the five checkout lines in between were closed, which identifies another gripe of American customers: waiting in line while other registers or bank windows are closed.

If America is going to be truly great again, U.S. business must first learn to hold the phone.