With this article, TheStreet.com begins the Shopping Bag, an occasional column exploring the lighter side of retail. (The way retail shares are trading these days, every bit of mirth is important.) But while this column aims to be entertaining, it will also analyze how publicly traded retailers are doing at the store level: what they're offering their customers, and whether it's likely to be a hit. And in an environment where the slightest slip in monthly same-store sales growth can send shares plunging, we hope that on-the-ground insight will be useful for mall rats and investors alike.

It's springtime, and so the Shopping Bag's thoughts turn to clothes. New ones. Lots of them. Crammed into closets, tags still on, spilling from bureau drawers like some giant lovely sartorial river overflowing its banks!

Ahem. The Shopping Bag gets a little ahead of herself. There is much work involved in assembling a spring wardrobe. Paychecks must be stretched. Fashion bibles must be consulted. Trends must be assessed. Luckily, the Shopping Bag has a secret weapon: her dear friend Donna Duarte, fashion editor at

Redbook

magazine, who has more personal style in her toe than the Shopping Bag has in her entire body.

And so, on a recent Friday afternoon, spring barely nipping at the ankles of the air, the Shopping Bag and Donna decide to tool around New York's Flatiron District, on a quest to find the retail chains that are doing the best job translating the trends into salable items. To list those trends, Donna must exercise her most excellent powers of recall, because she has only recently digested the bolus of Fashion Week's lineup for the coming fall. Nevertheless, she closes her eyes and prevails: soft floral and Liberty prints, polka dots, intentionally worn-out "dirty" jeans (more expensive than the regular kind, of course), faux python, leather, gold and ethnic prints. Thus informed, the hunt begins.

There is much potential at

Old Navy

, the lower-priced sibling of the

Gap

(GPS) - Get Report

. "I still wear T-shirts I got here for $12," says Donna. The store does not disappoint. Inexpensive finds abound: brightly colored bathing suits at $12.50 per piece, $5 hair kerchiefs and $3.50 flip-flops. There are Liberty prints everywhere. An ethnic print skirt for $26 reminds Donna very much of a designer version she bought last year for $300. The Shopping Bag extends her sympathy on the way out.

Although she does not normally consider herself one of the masses, the Shopping Bag is happy to count herself a happy customer of massive retailer

Express

, a unit of retail gargantuan

Limited

(LTD)

. There is plenty to love about a store that delivers the latest trends at a price that won't force the Shopping Bag to subsist on ramen noodles in between Visa bill and paycheck. Donna agrees, pointing out a pointelle cotton sweater set with lace trim that sells for $34.50 for the cardigan and $19.50 for the tank top. She also approves of a $54 backless halter top in a paisley print and a similar halter in pink leather with laser-cut patterns. The matching skirt, though, is so short it would make exiting a cab an obscene proposition. Donna suggests it would be more appropriate for a summer weekend. Or, perhaps, on a teenager. The Shopping Bag ignores the insult and swoons over Express' accessories: power bead bracelets for $7.99 and necklaces for $16.

Now the Shopping Bag may have an open mind when it comes to the gentlemen in her life, but there are limits. There's no way she is ever going to date anyone wearing orange pants that resemble a hazmat cleanup uniform. That, however, is exactly what

Club Monaco

TheStreet Recommends

, a unit of

Polo Ralph Lauren

(RL) - Get Report

, is trying to foist on unsuspecting males this spring. Luckily, its lineup for women is far more appealing. Donna goes crazy for a $150 python-print skirt, a $229 tan fitted trenchcoat and a $99 pink silk-blend turtleneck. The gold leather skirt in the window is a bit rich for the Shopping Bag's blood, at $299.

On to the Gap, whose same-store sales, the Shopping Bag can't help but note, have not been doing as well as Old Navy's. The chain is peppering its predictable lineup of khakis and T-shirts with more fashion-forward items. Donna loves the red leather pants for $175 and the pink suede jacket for $168. "This is a really different take on the shape," she says. In this particular store, there is also a pricier range of

1969

brand goods. The Shopping Bag notes some of the hats and T-shirts look suspiciously like

Abercrombie & Fitch's

(ANF) - Get Report

frat boy uniform. Will Gap consumers pay $28 for a T-shirt? Or $148 for a wool sweater?

Donna nearly swoons and requires smelling salts when she walks into

Banana Republic

, which has punched up its line of neutral suits and separates with flashes of pink and coral. "They're doing great at incorporating trends with what they do well," she says, pointing to a pair of slim-cut pants and a $78 A-line cotton skirt. She's also a fan of Banana's leather coats -- including a $450 black trench and a $350 gray cropped jacket -- and a $125 purse that resembles the much-coveted

Fendi

baguettes (which go for up to $6,000 uptown at

Barney's

). A $118 poncho, however, elicits a delicately turned-up nose. She's tired of ponchos, she explains.

AnnTaylor

(ANN)

isn't the trendiest taco in the combo plate. Women know exactly what they're going to get: nice, if basic suits, and every possible variation on the party dress (male friends of the Shopping Bag still speak wistfully of a certain red haltered number she wore in her undergraduate days). But in these fashion-driven times, Ann is making an effort to be a tad more current. "Very nice!" Donna says, pointing to a dirty jean jacket for $78. She also approves of brown flats for $98 and sleeveless cotton vests for $44. Still, the Shopping Bag would not shop here for the latest and greatest. This is still a place for staples.

The tour ended, Donna and the Shopping Bag walk up Fifth Avenue, planning to come back with credit cards in hand. They remove their jackets, trade air kisses and go their separate ways. Spring has sprung. Let the shopping deluge begin!