Carol Farmer has a million stories about bad retail service.

There was the guy who went into a Sears store to buy a lawn mower. He asked the clerk to describe them. The clerk shrugged and said, "Read the sign here, it tells you just about all you want to know."When the guy tried to leave, the sales clerk intercepted him on the way to the door, pressed his business card into the guy's hand and said, "So, if you buy that lawn mower, make sure you ask for me because I'm on commission."

Then there's the woman, no longer able to contain her frustration, who walked into the central aisle in a tony Manhattan department store, threw back her head and shrieked, "WILL SOMEONE PLEASE TAKE MY MONEY!?"

"Customers are screaming bloody murder," said Farmer, a retail marketing consultant in New York.

Customers are defecting in droves to retailers who haven't forgotten one of the earliest tenets of the business: the customer is always right.

A reputation for outstanding customer service is what has fueled the success of retailers as diverse as Nordstrom, Wal-Mart, Crate & Barrel and L.L. Bean, the catalog sales company.

Now, as the retail environment grows ever more competitive and the critical Christmas selling season fast approaches, everyone is saying that customer service is their top priority.

That is especially true given the sluggish retail sales of the past couple of years.

"The competition taught us a lesson, that it didn't make a whole lot of sense for us to let go of what we stood for originally," said Pat Stillman, vice president for organization development and training at Bullock's in Los Angeles. "Bullock's had all the pieces, but we needed a kick in the pants to get them back in place - and Nordstrom was that kick in the pants."

Bullock's is one of several retailers who have improved salaries, expanded commission pay systems, improved staff training and relaxed return policies and other regulations to make it easier for sales people to cater to customer needs.

But how successful have retailers been? Some analysts said service has gotten better. But others disagreed.

"It's total lip service," Farmer said. "It's crummy because they don't want to spend any money . . . And they're focusing on what they think service is, and that's not the same as what a customer thinks it is."

"We see (service) definitely on the decline," added Chris Ohlinger, president of Service Industry Research Systems, a market research firm in Cincinnati.

Ohlinger points to SIRS's own survey asking consumers to rate the quality of service in department and specialty retail stores across the country. On a scale of 0 to 100, the rating has declined from 58 in 1985 to 56.5 in 1986, 54.8 in 1987 and 49.8 in 1988 - after major retailers had instituted programs to improve service.

What is the problem? Some analysts argue that old-line managers still think money is better spent on advertising, merchandising and capital renovations than on salaries, training or other personnel improvements that would directly affect service.

Others say that service cannot improve, no matter how much money a retailer spends, unless - as with a chain like Nordstrom - customer service is a deeply ingrained philosophy that reaches from the boardroom to the sales floor.

"Every retailer will tell you that the customer comes first and service is their top priority," said Carl Steidtmann, chief economist with the retail marketing firm Management Horizons in Columbus, Ohio. "Yet when the hard times come, the first thing they do is cut employment. . . . (Sales jobs) are still viewed as low-wage, high-turnover positions."

There are some signs that is beginning to change, and major retailers are looking to industry models like Nordstrom for clues.

Without exception, analysts and consultants point to the Seattle-based specialty retailer as a model for excellent customer service. That reputation has helped Nordstrom's per-square-foot sales exceed the industry average by as much as double, and has stolen customers from existing retailers in every market Nordstrom has entered, from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco.

Oddly, Nordstrom is about the only retailer out there that won't expound on its customer service philosophy or methods. "It's strictly an in-house subject," said John Nordstrom, co-chairman and grandson of company founder John W. Nordstrom.

Still, it's no secret that the company has built a reputation in its 87 years of business. "It's so personable and the atmosphere of the store itself, it's so beautiful," said June Rushing, a Camarillo, Calif., resident who has been making the long trek to the Nordstrom in Topanga Plaza for 11/2 years.

Rushing returns time and again because of the service she gets from Patti Quinn, one of the store's personal shoppers. For no charge, Quinn will pull together outfits from throughout the store for Rushing to try on.

In addition to a pervasive philosophy that places the customer at the top of Nordstrom's organizational chart, the key to Nordstrom's service is a carefully selected staff and better-than-average pay, analysts said. Base rates are as high as $8 or $9 per hour, compared with $5 or $6 in other stores, and staff can earn commissions on the average of 6 or 7 percent, analysts said.

In addition, employees are encouraged to keep books of "clients," to keep track of apparel tastes, even to send thank you notes and birthday cards. Nordstrom's rule book also is streamlined to remove obstacles for sales people, who have been known to run over to competing stores to get a customer something that was not in stock.

Nordstrom's return policy is among the most liberal in the industry, although a spokeswoman denied a much circulated story that the store once gave a refund on a tire returned by a customer who wasn't aware Nordstrom didn't sell tires.

Surprisingly, employee training takes only about 11/2 days, said spokeswoman Lucianne Hamilton.

Of course, the pressure on employees to please is intense. Employees were expected to "earn your draw," that is, sell enough merchandise every hour to give them a commission equivalent to their hourly base pay, said Chandra Pezzullo, a San Diego law student and former Nordstrom employee. In her case, that would mean enough merchandise to give her hourly pay of $8.90 per hour, or, at a 7 percent commission, $127 per hour.

"It was a nice place to work, but there was definitely an undercurrent of competition and a very hierarchical system," she added.

Still, other retailers are now instituting systems of their own to compete with the likes of Nordstrom on its own terms.

Bullock's is once again saying that customer service is its top priority. It has raised base pay to between $5 and $8.50 per hour and plans to expand commissions, now about 7 percent, beyond the traditional menswear and fur departments into all areas of certain stores, Stillman said.

Bullock's has liberalized its return policy and loosened regulations to make it easier for salespeople to serve customers, including allowing its salespeople to get an out-of-stock item from a competing store. Salespeople even keep their own client books.

Sears, which just announced a new strategy of everyday low pricing, nevertheless said it also is interested in improving customer service.

It has placed more cash registers in departments to shorten lines and is installing bar-code equipment to speed transactions, said spokesman Philo Holland. It has broadened the use of commissions to small-ticket items and plans to increase staff in its proposed "power formats," or stores-within-stores.

Both Mervyn's in Hayward and May Co. of California have installed electronic price lookup systems to lessen transaction times at the register, officials said.

And May Co. has adjusted its staffing to ensure the proper staff levels in departments during peak hours, said Ed Mangiafico, May Co. California chairman.

In addition, many retailers now boast special services such as personal shoppers for time-pressed customers.

Some of the work is being noticed. "I have to tell you I was in Broadway and I got the best service I've ever had today . . . (The salesclerk) was extremely helpful and very friendly," said Carol Matcalf, a Tarzana, Calif., resident shopping in Topanga Plaza recently.

"I think it's better - I think they're starting to recognize there's so much competition, they have to do something to keep the customers coming back," added Brenda Farr of Oxnard, Calif., also shopping in the Canoga Park mall.

Still, observers remained skeptical.

"The first myth is the `Let's-put-everyone-on-commission-because-it-works-at-Nordstrom' myth," said Farmer. "But they have a whole system that works for them."

She added that providing services such as personal shoppers misses the real point. What customers really want, she said, is simple: "They want it in stock . . . they want to try it on easily . . . and when they're ready to buy, they want to get the heck out."

"I (don't) think Nordstrom's success is a formula, something that can be easily duplicated," added Leonard Berry, director of the Center for Retailing Studies at Texas A&M University. "A lot of it is built up in tradition, and in the leadership of the company . . . and another company cannot become Nordstrom no matter how much money they spend on service."

But retail consultants agree that any money spent on improving service is worth it. It costs five times as much to win a new customer as it does to keep an existing one, said John Tschohl, a customer service consultant and president of Better Than Money Corp. in Bloomington, Minn.

More important, a customer who is pleased with service won't necessarily say anything to anyone, but a customer who is unhappy will tell 10 others, analysts estimate.