Terrance Conran beat Ralph Lauren to Washington by two weeks.

Ted Lapidus is a lap behind in the latest retail race for Washington, followed by Williams Sonoma, Pierre Deux and half a dozen other migrating merchants, most of them from Manhattan.

An erotic toy shop from Greenwich Village already has opened in Georgetown, and an exotic toy store from Fifth Avenue is going in across the street.

New York stores are opening Washington branches so fast that there will soon be little excuse to go to New York to go shopping.

Despite signs that the recession is hurting retail business, out-of-town retailers are still opening here every month, convinced that Washington remains the promised land of two-income families, trendy tastes and continuous, if not too conspicuous, consumption.

Most stores arriving these days are from New York. Washigton shoppers long ago embraced 'Lord & Taylor, Saks Fifth Avenue and Bloomingdales. Now that the department stores are acclimated, the boutiques and specialty stores that cluster around tthem are coming south in a new wave of expansion.

For the Ralph Laurens of the world, Washington is a market that has grown too important to be served by anything less than a full-line, two-story shop on Connecticut Avenue NW, handling nothing but Lauren's Polo label.

"There's a tremendous market for this in Washington," said store manager Steve Prescott, surveying a shopful of $100 womens' blouses and $300 to $450 men's suits. The local Polo purveyers are a company called Chukker -- after a period in a polo match -- whose partners include Virginia businessmen Robert Nichols and Lee Horner and Tricia Wilson, a Dallas interior decorator who designed the new store.

Similar motives are mentioned by the other recent migrants, who figure that if a few Washington shoppers will go out of town to shop, a lot more will respond if the out-of-town shops come to them.

Conran's recently opened Georgetown store is the first step outside the New York area for the home goods empire that architect Terrance Conran spread across Europe under the name Habitat. Conran literally wrote the books -- first "The House Book," then versions devoted to kitchens, bedrooms and baths -- and now is trying to see if Americans will buy the merchandise as eagerly as they bought the books. s

The crowds at Conran's store on the first floor of New York's Citicorp Center indicate that the merchandise has been Americanized enough to sell in New York, but Georgetown is a long way from Madison Avenue. It is farther still to Fairfax County, whereConran's plans to open next year.

The formula that worked in New York also had to be altered when The Pleasure Chest moved from Greenwich Village to Georgetown. Washington is a lot straighter than New York, observes Cynthia Colglazer, who persuaded a cousin to let her open a local branch of his New York erotic boutique. "We have a lot more clothing here, "she added, "and we don't carry some of the bondage stuff."

The pleasure Chest is across the street from Conran's, which was the first store to open in the Georgetown Park complex straddling the C&O Canal at Wisconsin Avenue and M Street NW.

Merchants who have signed leases in the project range from D.B. Kaplan's deli from Chicago to F.A.O. Schwarz, the fabled Fifth Avenue toy store.

Like Laura Ashley, the English women's wear and fabric shop that opened a small Georgetown boutique while waiting for its bigger Georgetown Park store to be completed, Schwarz is putting in a store at Mazza Gallerie to get into the Washington market as quickly as possible.

The two Schwarz stores may not knock Toys R Us out of first place in the local toy business, but they will knock the eyes out of any kid whose parents are affluent enough to take them there.

Mazza Gallerie also will be the Washington home to Ted Lapidus, a clothing designer from Paris by way of Fifth Avenue; Williams Sonoma, a kitchen and cookware boutique startd in Sonoma, Calif., by Chuck Williams, and Pierre Deux, a New York-based chain of antique and fabric stores.