For most of us, “inflation,” and “recession” are words that we hear on a newscast or read in headlines. We understand mainly that things are not good — and “not good” means dif-ferent things, depending on whether we earn more than six figures or struggle to survive from paycheck to paycheck.

So I went to the mall for a lesson in economics. America’s bad times were palpable there, and the national discomfort made itself known with every step.

I had a Christmas gift certificate for $250, and a semi-annual women’s sale was just beginning. A criminal lawyer might say this shopper had the means, motive, and opportunity to make a killing at the cash registers.

Yet three hours later, I had spent only about $10, having found little worth buying. Marked-down quality goods were replaced with shabby “special purchases” manufactured in China or in countries whose names I can hardly pronounce. The prices, however, were equal to those on designer goods tailor-made in Paris. The scam was obvious, and I was not about to fall victim to blatant profiteering.

This store was disarmingly empty, with none of the usual “Big Sale” crowd buzzing with the excitement of a great item found at a bargain price.

The sales staff, did its best to “meet and greet,” as they were taught in Retail 101. There was something of desperation in their voices, however. My sense is they’ve been doing a lot more meeting and greeting lately than closing the deal. Like me, other shoppers walked away empty-handed.

Disappointed but not deterred, I headed for the exit to spend my money in some other store. The depressing mood of the cavernous walkway — almost empty except for a hand-ful of shoppers — chilled me. There were no pairs of shoppers squealing with delight, no buyers overloaded with shopping bags. The mall music was overwhelming with no din to mask it.

Bored salespeople stared into space or chatted on cell phones. Some busied themselves by rearranging merchandise in the desperate hope of catching a buyer’s eye with a new display.

Boutiques with big-ticket items seemed busier than department store chains that have been showering consumers with endless mail and newspaper coupons for double-digit dis-counts. Still, even their aisles were sparsely populated.

No less determined, I went to the men’s department, thinking I’d buy a new raincoat for my husband. There were no crisp, classic trench coats with zip-out linings, only overpriced “micro-fiber” numbers made
in . . . you guessed it.

I headed for the garage, and on the way out, bought myself a lipstick with one of those coupons I mentioned.

Hours later, this frustrated consumer was self-serving gas at $3.89 a gallon, grounded in brutal reality. I headed home with only my lipstick and a more graphic understanding of America’s economic woes — darker and heavier than they seemed before my trip to the marketplace.

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