The gold emblem on the front and the crest and serial number on the inside identified the handbag as a Gucci. And for $125 at a Washington area off-price store, $51 less than the retail price, it seemed a great buy.

It wasn't. It was counterfeit, according to Gucci officials.

The handbag was purchased as part of a Washington Post survey that found that off-price shopping -- the retailing phenomenon that has brought factory outlets, bargain warehouses and designer discounters to the Washington area in ever-increasing numbers -- can be risky business for consumers.

In a survey of more than 50 stores, the off-price market was found to be one where bad buys can be had along with bona fide bargains.

"It's a hit-or-miss proposition," said Susie Tobias, who often shops at the new Potomac Mills mall in Woodbridge, Va., which bills itself as the world's largest collection of off-price stores.

A panel of professional buyers, retailers, jewelers, and tailoring and textile experts assembled by The Post found that quality does not always measure up to that of comparably priced goods from conventional retailers. In a market where claims of sensational savings abound, consumers also risk spending large sums on items that often may not be what the labels indicate, according to the findings.

In addition, stores often make exaggerated savings claims by inflating what they say are the comparable retail prices, the findings indicate.

"They're making the savings look astronomical," said Montgomery County consumer specialist Susan Cohen. "No one knows what a legitimate savings is anymore."

Based on comparisons of merchandise from off-price stores and similar goods from conventional retailers, the findings illustrate concerns that some claims by the off-price industry, which is expected to sell $13 billion in apparel alone next year, are at least questionable and may violate federal and state advertising guidelines.

The issue is a growing concern to consumer agencies because of the impact the industry is having on the way people spend their money.

"I never shop full-price," said Linda Meegan, a shopper who recently pulled into the Potomac Mills parking lot in a station wagon bearing the bumper sticker 'Born to Shop.' "It's a waste of money."

Some of the Washington area's best known off-price stores are Syms, Loehmann's, NBO and T.H. Mandy. Those and similar merchants typically offer few customer services and stock their shelves with large quantities of merchandise bought directly from manufacturers. The wares available in the booming off-price market include everything from toys to toiletries, shoes to sheets.

The Post's random survey did not include all of the area's off-price stores. The shopping examples illustrate the difficulty for the consumer in making choices at any retail store and the gamble of getting good quality for the lowest price. The items cited do not necessarily represent the overall quality or pricing of goods at the particular store or type of store.

James Abbott, Maryland's assistant attorney general for consumer affairs, suggested that shoppers be cautious about off-price savings claims. "I suspect that there are serious questions to be raised" about the claims, he said.

But caution may be necessary at conventional stores, too. Maryland recently sued The Hecht Co. for using fictitious prices in sales advertisements for mattresses "to create an illusion of dramatic savings and significant bargains which, in fact, do not exist." The company has denied the charges.

The issue is whether sensational savings claims really are deceptive and harmful to consumers, said Mark Silbergeld of Consumers Union. "If the claim is not technically accurate, then at least it shouldn't lead people to shop where they wouldn't ordinarily shop, or buy what they wouldn't ordinarily buy," he said.

Federal Trade Commission guidelines define deceptive practices, such as false savings claims, as those that are likely to mislead consumers, affecting what products they buy.

In recent years, however, the FTC has maintained a hands-off policy on comparative ads, leaving the challenge of monitoring them to local governments. State and county consumer offices in the Washington area maintain that they do not have the resources to do such monitoring.

In its survey, The Washington Post found numerous examples of off-price merchandise selling for 50 to 85 percent less than what sellers listed as "comparable" price and value. And, in several cases, The Post's panel of professionals said the goods were worth just about what they actually sold for -- not the comparable price.

For example, a crew neck wool sweater that was advertised by New England Trading Co. at Potomac Mills as a $40 value was purchased off-price for $11.95 -- just what a textile expert and a fashion merchanding expert said it was worth.

"In order for comparable price claims to mean anything, it has to be sold at a major outlet in the Washington area at that regular price," said Montgomery County consumer specialist Cohen, citing local and federal advertising guidelines.

The sweater and others like it had been sitting in a warehouse for four years and probably the original seller never was able to sell it for $40, store manager Barbara Wehber said recently. "It's probably what they tried to sell it for, and it probably took a markdown right away," she said.

Dennis Marr, manager of Price Jewelers, noted that because conventional retail store prices vary for the same merchandise, there is a wide range for setting comparative prices and determining savings. "It falls back to the old phrase, 'What is retail?' " he said.

During the survey, The Post found numerous items that the panelists considered good buys, particularly at those off-price stores that deal only in first-quality, current merchandise. In many instances, merchandise in off-price specialty stores, particularly some women's clothing shops, can be found at the same time hanging on racks in conventional retail stores.

But these items often sell for moderate savings of only about 20 percent off regular prices. For example, a woman's angora sweater sold for $52 at Cohoes, a top-quality, brand name off-pricer at Potomac Mills. The same sweater was found at several conventional department stores selling for $62, which Cohoes had listed as the comparable price.

The Post used independent professionals, who looked at merchandise without knowing where it was from, to determine how goods at off-price and conventional retail stores stack up. Here are some of their findings:

*Sweaters: A woman's sweater coat purchased from Burlington Coat Factory in Prince George's County for $39.75 sold elsewhere for $239, according to its ticket.

A great value?

The coat -- in heavy red, white and black unlined wool with a double neck button closing -- was worth about $79, according to two textile and merchandising experts. The panelists said the off-price coat was a low-quality, "scratchy" wool that had been machine processed to try to soften it and create a furry effect, a technique used by manufacturers who cannot afford to use more expensive lamb's wool or angora.

The $239 price tag was based on the typical 100 percent markup over the wholesale price that conventional retailers generally use, said Gary Graham, Burlington's regional manager.

"We're very, very sensitive about our comps comparable prices ," he added. "We try to remain realistic."

The coat was among thousands purchased from a manufacturer who went out of business, Graham said, and has been in off-price stores since last year.

The panel correctly estimated that a sweater coat from Garfinckel's, a beige and white checked garment of angora and lamb's wool, retailed for $150.

The Post purchased two crew neck sweaters, one from the off-price New England Trading Company, the other from Woodward & Lothrop, both priced at $40. But the one purchased from the off-price store for the discount price of $11.95 was of a scratchy, low-quality wool, according to the professionals, who said it was probably made inexpensively in the Far East. The label said it was made in Sri Lanka.

The long-sleeved sweater was among the least expensive items in a store with much top-quality, current merchandise. It was "obviously something we wanted to get rid of," explained manager Wehber. Many shoppers are looking for merchandise at that price and quality, she said.

*Menswear: The panelists said a suit purchased in November from Syms was out of fashion, but that a sport coat from the same store was a current, good-quality garment.

"I don't even think this is last year's," a panelist said of the dark gray Bill Blass suit, noting that it had a plain-front trouser and six buttons on its double-breasted jacket, both out-of-fashion details.

The professionals estimated its retail value as $175 to $200 and said it was at least two years old. The suit was purchased at Syms for $125, but was advertised as selling regularly for $260.

"It's possible that any given suit could be out of date," said Syms advertising director David Bernard, who said the suit purchased by The Post could have been an isolated example. Syms, which quotes "nationally advertised" prices, bases its comparable prices on those set by manufacturers and competing conventional retail stores, Bernard said.

A charcoal gray shetland sports coat purchased from Syms was considered by the panelists to be a good, fashionable garment that should sell for up to $175. It was bought during a "special sale" at $20 off the regular discount price of $139. The store said the jacket was comparable to those selling elsewhere for $240.

The panelists evaluated another Bill Blass designer suit, a dark blue pinstripe purchased from Hecht's department store. "It has the new look, lower lapels. I'd say this is very current," one said. They estimated its retail value at $275, its exact selling price.

*Jewelry: The original retail prices of four 14-karat gold chains purchased from a conventional retail store and two off-price jewelry outlets were found to be much higher than professional jewelers said they were worth. The jewelers weighed and then examined the pieces through a jeweler's loupe.

A flat herringbone bracelet from Price Jewelers at Potomac Mills should sell for $12.75, according to the panelists' estimate. The store said the bracelet's comparable retail price was $33 and sold it off-price for $10.97.

Marr, Price's manager, said he disagreed with the price estimate.

The store, owned by a manufacturer who sells jewelry to regular retail stores, establishes comparable value by looking at prices charged by conventional retailers it sells to, as well as prices listed in shopping catalogs for similar goods, according to Marr. Some merchandise is priced based on the typical 300 percent markup most jewelers use and then discounted, Marr said.

"He's saying it's worth $12 in materials. That may be true," Marr said of the evaluation done for The Post. "But we're selling it for $10.97."

A cobra link bracelet that regularly sold for $40 at Woodward & Lothrop was purchased during a 50-percent-off sale for $20. The panelists' estimate of the chain's retail value was $20 to $25. Officials of the department store declined to comment on the store's pricing policy.

Both bracelets eventually broke -- one after being worn three days and the other after being worn two weeks under normal conditions.

"This one is going to rip and break; it's starting to crack already," one panelist said of a comparably priced $24 gold chain sold by Manufacturers Jewelry Outlet for $8. The clasp was considered "hard to handle and susceptible to breakage."

*Leather goods: Linda Morrison, a legal representative of Gucci's in New York, called the "Gucci" handbag purchased for $125 at an off-price store "a very strange piece of merchandise." According to the price tag at Just Accessories at Potomac Mills, it was discounted to $51 less than its regular price.

The bag, a medium-sized blue camera case model, was made of poorer quality pigskin than the genuine Gucci bag and its inner lining was badly crafted, "horrible," officials of the Italian specialty store said. The Gucci emblem and crest were flawed and its zipper color was not matched, they said. The serial number used to identify genuine bags was not embossed, but printed -- upside down.

Yet some details, like the zipper pull and metal clasps, were identical to a genuine Gucci, they said.

"At first glance, you'd say it's definitely a Gucci," Morrison said. "But when you obviously get a bag that falls apart after a while . . . . "

The buyer for Just Accessories, Bonnie Flag, said two accessory buyers at different conventional department stores examined a recent shipment of Gucci bags the store received and judged them genuine. She said the store had purchased them through a middleman who said he bought them as surplus goods directly from the Italian maker. If counterfeit, Flagg said, "they aren't your typical imitation Gucci." The store owners plan to fully investigate the matter, Flagg said.

*Shoes: A pair of women's black patent leather pumps bearing a Bandolino label and purchased from a shoe outlet were found to be of the highest quality of four pairs of shoes obtained from conventional retailers and off-price stores. However, a pair of shoes bearing the same label and purchased from another off-price store was found to be of lower quality and of less value than the comparable price the discounter advertised.

Specifically, the panelists raved about the quality of the pumps, purchased from Bannister Shoes at Potomac Mills, and estimated their retail value at $65. The comparable price advertised for the shoes, purchased at the outlet for $35, was $60. "If you paid $35 for those shoes you got an outstanding value," one panelist said after the test.

The other shoes were a pair of pink spike heels with a bow on the toe. They were made of a low-grade calfskin or synthetic material, and the poor construction almost guaranteed a bad fit, according to the panelists, who set the price at $49. That pair of Bandolinos, advertised at Burlington Coat Factory as also selling regularly for $65, was purchased during a special sale there for $29.99.

Burlington's Graham said "comparative value means those goods had to be sold somewhere for that price."

With the increase in the number of stores vying for off-price merchandise, some suggest there may be a shortage of high-quality goods that can be sold at discount.

"There's not enough of the first-quality goods to fill these stores so they're starting to fill them with junk, which gives off-price a bad name," said Ellenann Walsh, spokeswoman for Marshall's department store, the nation's largest off-price chain.

Others say manufacturers themselves have already begun producing specifically for off-pricers who can buy in large volumes, pay cash and are willing to take merchandise that is difficult to sell otherwise.

Judith Barnes of Cohoes disagrees that there may be a lack of merchandise. "There's always last season's," she said. "I can't see there ever being a lack of merchandise for an off-price store."

Some consumer advocates say that the off-price phenomenon can be nothing but good news for consumers, despite what may be some questionable practices.

"Even if some of the prices are inflated, they're engendering price competition," says Ann Brown, head of the Consumer Protection Committee of the Greater Washington chapter of Americans for Democratic Action. "Price competition is the name of the game."