Eleven-year-old David Nikodem, leading his mother by the coat sleeve at Tysons Corner mall yesterday, had a very good reason for shopping on the Washington-areas biggest day of sales: "I came here to get some D and D [Dungeons and Dragons game] stuff for my friends. I heard it was on sale."

Nikodem and thousands of other Washington-area bargain hunters joined the ritual of sifting through sweaters and picking over pantsuits at the George Washington's birthday sales. Shirts were piled high and stewn about on tables, and prospective purchasers bounced on and off sofas. In Bloomingdale's menswear department even a new Plymouth Reliant, on display for a promotion, didn't avoid the methodical kicking and thumping by at least one customer.

The Tysons Corner parking lots were nearly filled 15 minutes after the stores opened at 10 a.m. The cash registers at Woodward and Lothrop busily hummed up sales. (Cash registers don't ring anymore.)

The nation's "economic mess" didn't appear to dampen the demand for goods, but perhaps made shoppers more selective in what they bought. Nationally sales have picked up despite high interest rates that psychologically make customers cautious. Local sales, aided by balmy weather, were brisk and better than last year's, according to a spokesman for the retail bureau of the Greater Washington Board of Trade. It was a $60-million-to $70-million-day, the spokesman said.

"I came to look at draperies in Bloomingdale's" said Vera Nikodem, who had waited for a good sale before buying them. Because of the economy "we are only buying things we need and maybe we're looking more for sales than before," Nikodem said.

"We're looking for a La-Z-Boy chair," said John Neary of Alexandria. "We're trying to get something at a lower price.Sales are the only way you can survive."

Even stores that didn't advertise sales took advantage of the increased traffic the holiday brought.

At Brookstone's tool and gift store, customers jammed the aisles to look at hammocks, bright quartz wall clocks, stainless-steel vegetable steamers and plastic bins. Business was "probably better" than normal, said manager Jim McCarten, although the store hadn't advertised a sale. "We don't need to. We're always crowded. We attract a lot of people."

Sales were "almost like another Saturday," McCarten said. "Everybody's off work."

With a 60-degree temperature for a backdrop, many shoppers and merchants still recalled the Washington's birthday nightmare two years ago when more than a foot of snow fell on the area. Stores closed and more than $60 million in retail sales were lost. Marked-down color TV's went unwatched and specially priced vacuum cleaners never left the sales floor.

All retailers contacted by the board of trade said yesterday "was a very brisk day, a lot of traffic," a spokesman said. "The weather was good. Maybe a trifle too warm. It could become a little uncomfortable." Sales were "much better this year" than last year "and of course much better than two years ago," the spokesman added.

The holiday is an important business day for retailers because they can get rid of the last remnants of winter goods while giving shoppers a preview of their spring lines, the spokesman said.

"I was supposed to be shopping for infants clothing," said Jacqueline Barnes of Falls Church. But she said "most are things left over from the winter and most of them look rejected."

The economy has affected Barnes' shopping patterns, she said. "That has cut it down tremendously. Everything I bought before, I bought for fashion. cNow I look at the price tag. Now the things I buy are more a necessity than the things I want." But she added, "I always look forward to George Washington sales."

Washington's birthday "is more significant in the greater Washington area than anywhere in the country." the board of trade spokesman said. He said the holiday's sales tradition started here.

In general sales this year have been better in the suburbs than in downtown Washington, the spokesman said. Sales yesterday were strong in both areas, he added.