Let's assume you're a floorwalker pacing the aisles of a local department store over the Christmas season and along comes a little person, perhaps 8 or 9, looking a bit lost.

What do you do?Do you say: "Please don't touch that."

Do you say: "Where's your mother?"

Do you ignore this young shopper?

The answer, if you expect to win friends and influence the small fry, is none of the above.

What you do, says James McNeal, who teaches marketing in the business school at Texas A&M, is treat every child customer like a big spender. We're talking paper money here, not just nickels and dimes.

"Kids have more money to spend and are more self-reliant than children of past Christmases," says McNeal. "Working parents are short on time but long on income. They let children do the shopping."

McNeal has been studying child consumers since the 1960s, using his own three children (the youngest is now 17) as role models. Two years ago he wrote a book, "Children as Consumers," on the subject.

Children, he says, are buying things, with or without Mom and Dad.

"They've just gotten older younger," he says.

By his calculations, children 4 to 12 have annual purchasing power of $4.3 billion. They have "direct influence" over $50 billion in parental spending. They have $500 million stashed away in piggy banks and savings accounts.

"These kids will spend more than $1 billion between Thanksgiving and Christmas," he says.

One example: "Tween-age" girls between the ages of 9 and 12 can be seen at shopping malls buying vials of holiday perfume for $25, $35, even $45, with parents nowhere in sight.

Yet, for some reason, says McNeal, two-thirds of our stores tend to disregard young children as consumers; some, in fact, make it harder for them to shop.

"Children are not very social, except with other children," he says. "Crowds can be intimidating to children. And sometimes retail sales people make children feel unwelcome, which pushes the intimidation level even higher."

What child shoppers need is help, not static from hostile clerks.

Some stores, as a gesture of good will, let children use their parents' credit cards if their names are on file. That could be risky. I'm not sure I'd send an 8-year-old into the world with plastic charge plates in his pockets.

But there is nothing to prevent a store from offering special assistance, such as reminding kids to keep their sales receipts, or making sure they have the right size, or advising them not to buy a baseball bat for Grandmother.

"Children make mistakes," McNeal points out. "The fewer mistakes they make, the fewer gifts will have to be returned after Christmas."