I WAS IN a store doing some holiday shopping when the strangest thing happened - a salesclerk came up to me and asked, "May I help you?"

You could have knocked me into that pile of sale sweaters I was pawing through.

While I would have loved to have some help, I couldn't take advantage of her semi-miraculous offer of assistance, though, because there wasn't a thing in that store I wanted.

Not a sparkly bauble or even a new holiday sweater, which I sure could have used since my old one has seen back-to-back years of holiday parties.

If I liked any of the merchandise that I saw that night, then I didn't like the price.

Talk about an exercise in frustration, a waste of time that I could have spent doing something important such as posting things on Twitter.

Some mean old Scrooge had snuck in and figured out a way to cut back on the Christmas deals I'd come to love and expect this time of year.

No, I'm not dreaming of a white Christmas - I've had enough snow, thank you.

But I am still dreaming of a holiday shopping season like the ones I used to know when inventories were flush and markdowns plentiful.

The little bit of holiday shopping I've been doing this year hasn't been much fun at all. For the most part, it has been downright dreary.

"It's like shopping in the former Soviet Union," one of my similarly challenged colleagues quipped when I griped to her last week about the state of this year's shopping season.

Alyce Jones, a Tastykake machine operator who lives in West Philly, had an even more dramatic take.

"Yes, some stores look like all they have left is thrift-store items . . . "

"We've been getting a little bit of a rude shock this year, because the stuff isn't there," said Randy Allen, an associate dean at Cornell University's Johnson Graduate School of Management.

"My sister wanted a pink or blue sweater from Talbot's . . . there wasn't a blue one to be had in a medium and that was a week-and-a-half ago.

"I took what they had."

Although the ghosts of Christmases past still may be haunting retailers, for consumers who aren't completely spooked about spending, those were some good bargain-hunting days, the likes of which it may be years before we see again.

Ah, the sweet memories.

I can still remember walking into discounters and wandering from aisle to aisle marveling at the wretched excess of it all. What's happened, of course, is that retailers tried to be smarter this time around.

"They were completely caught off-guard last year. The housing bubble burst and then the subsequent drop in the stock market was so abrupt and so late in the season," pointed out Deborah Purcell, a retail expert for Pitney Bowes.

Not wanting a repeat of last year's dismal sales, many scaled way back.

Not only are store inventories thinner, but also many managers have pushed less-expensive store brands to highly trafficked aisle locations to give consumers the impression that they're getting better values, giving more of a Kohls' impression than that of a high-end retailer.

"I think the mind-set at the time was better safe than sorry," Purcell said.

"So it was conservative amounts of inventories and conservative varieties, and definitely a focus of function over aesthetics and over luxury.

"I think that has proven to be a wise approach for many retailers. While things have improved, they haven't improved too much more than what was expected."

Maybe some relief will come as retailers ratchet up the discounting after last weekend's snowstorm.

If that doesn't happen, I may be doing my shopping at after-Christmas sales.