Those seemingly engless snowfalls this winter may have exasperated Washington's motorists, but to the area's struggling ski shops the abundance of snowflakes has meant substantially more than just pennies from heaven.

There's nothing like a covering of white across the city's backyards, say ski shop owners and managers, to send downhill skiers flocking to slopes near and far toting pricey new equipment and sporting the latest in down-filled fashions.

In the face of inflation, the ski equipment and clothing retailers here are reporting their best year at the cash register since the winter of 1978-79. And the reason, plain and simple, is the heavy snows here and everywhere across the nation following a two-year snow drought.

For the ski industry, it appears, the best promotional gimmick for booming sales is snow.

"We're smiling for a change," says Jerry Fried, manager of Ski Haus, across from White Flint Mall, who has been in the business for 18 years. The surge of customers this year has enabled him to pay off bank loans that helped carry him through the past two lean seasons. "We had a bit of a tough time, but the snow has kept us pretty busy."

"It's been an incredible year," says Barbara Phillips, manager of the 4-year-old Old Town Ski Shop in Alexandria. "We've almost doubled our business. We realized at Thanksgiving it was going to be good. It was snowing in New England. We were getting incredible reports."

"The snow has been great for business," echoes Stuart Kahane, manager of his family's Ski Center in Spring Valley, the oldest ski shop (at 23) in the Washington area. "A year like this is a year when everybody would like to be in the ski business. There's nothing like a snowfall 10 days before Christmas."

It is the same story from other retailers: shelves rapidly emptying of thermal underwear and other cold-weather gear; weekend ski rentals regularly "sold out" days in advance; ski repair and maintenance services doing briskly. "Everybody is exhausted," says Kahane. "We're looking forward to the end of the season."

One sigh of regret: Many shopkeepers report that they cut their orders for new merchandise this year, fearful of another slack season. When the snow came, after a traditionally busy Christmas, it was too late to supplement their stock. "When we run out, it's a lost opportunity for sales," says Kahane. For the consumer, it may mean fewer end-of-season bargains than in the past two years.

As might be expected, this winter has also been profitable for the cross-country ski market. With nearby bike paths and parks blanketed for days on end, equipment sales and rentals at Hudson Bay Outfitters have been the best in four years, says Andy Mark of the Wisconsin Avenue store.

For some alpine skiing shops, however, the snow fell too late. In this chancy, seasonal industry, at least five closed their doors in the past year--including Earl Allen's large outlet at The Foundry in Georgetown, which just four years ago had moved in a major expansion from much smaller quarters on M Street.

At first, "Business was just terrific," recalls Will Rothrock, the manager for eight years. "We doubled our space. Then inflation hit, and there was no snow." Sales dropped off 25 percent as a result, he estimates. People brought in skis more often for repair than to replace them. "Our repair business got better as sales got worse."

One problem, he feels, was the sharp competition from the area's numerous shops. "I think there are too many. Earl's closing has to have been favorable for those that are still there."

Currently there are about 15 shops in the Washington area of varying sizes that primarily sell ski equipment and clothing (or alternate with a summer-season sport such as tennis). Herman's and Irving's sporting goods chains cater to the skier in another dozen outlets between them.

But Gary Golladay of Cabin John Tennis and Ski Shop jokes: "If every year were like this, there would be 100 ski shops in Washington."

Ironically, the ski shops seemed to have suffered considerably more from the drought than the 20 or so ski resorts within a five- to six-hour drive of Washington. These "Banana-Belt" slopes from Pennsylvania south rely on machine-made snow to blanket their runs, and they attract seasoned skiers who know sun in the city doesn't rule out moguls in the mountains. Many among them have reported good profits in the past two years.

Nationally, skier visits to the nation's slopes dropped from 47 million in 1978-79 to 37 million in 1980-81, says Kathe Dillmann of the National Ski Areas Association. In sharp contrast, resorts from Pennsylvania south through the Carolinas drew more skiers last year--up from 3.4 million in 1978-79 to 4 million last year, attributed mostly to snow-making equipment.

But Washington retailers count on big sales to enthusiasts heading for a week's vacation at Stowe, Vt., or Aspen, Colo., or other major spots. When the drought hit these popular ski resorts, says Bart Goldenberg of the four-year-old Inner Ski shop of Gaithersburg, customers canceled trips and put off buying new skis and parkas. But because of this year's record snowfalls in New England and the Rockies, they are back spending again.

At the same time, snow on the ground is what lures the all-important new skier, says Fried Friedrichsen of Ski Chalet in Arlington, which has been out up to 500 pairs of skis and boots on weekends. Washington's past two relatively mild winters did little to spur their interest. But this year, "the snow certainly has been encouraging new skiers to show up. If the weather holds, we expect to have our best season."

Ski Chalet closed its downtown Connecticut Avenue branch after last season. Lack of parking was a big problem, says Friedrichsen, and as a result "we didn't become equipment-oriented." Lunch-hour ski purchases are not easily carried home on the bus.

Beginners who start off renting skis, bindings, boots and poles for $20 to $25 a weekend are counted on to become buyers who may end up spending $270 to more than $800 for their own equipment. Added to that are the potential dollars to be made in dressing a skier from head to toe several layers deep.

(The importance of the new skier is seen in the "Discover Skiing" campaign in which nine ski resorts and 26 shops in the Philadelphia area have united. "Without them, the market would dry up," says Bill Stenger of the Jack Frost resort at White Haven, Pa. He sees shops becoming "ski information centers" as well as suppliers of equipment and clothing.)

Though rentals have been good, they nevertheless are a "terrific headache," confesses Inner Ski's Goldenberg, because of lines, breakage and late returns. But they draw new customers. "That's part of the ball game." Kahane shares that opinion and puts repair and maintenance services in the same category. "They're necessary but unprofitable because they are very labor intensive. It's a big part of overhead."

The local industry is also seeing the return this year of the "dropouts," former skiers whose enthusiasm lapses when there's no visible evidence of snow, says Richard Whitney, operations manager of nearby Ski Liberty in Fairfield, Pa. "They probably won't ski again until there's another foot of snow."

Liberty has opened four intermediate and expert slopes on the backside of the mountain this season with a new four-person chairlift. The addition, says Whitney, has practically "doubled the size of the ski area." Continued expansion by nearby areas cannot help having a favorable impact on their sales, say retailers, particularly among skiers who have stopped going because of long lift lines.

While shop owners may be delighted by an avalanche of snow, some resort managers see it as a mixed blessing. "In January, there were several weekend snows that hurt us," says Charles Wines of Massanutten, located near Harrisonburg, Va. "People couldn't get up here." Instead of 2,000 skiers who might be expected on a busy Saturday or Sunday, only a few hundred showed up.

Nor does natural snow (at least in the amounts received locally) make much difference on the slopes. Explains Wines: "It takes about 10 inches of natural snow to equal an inch of machine-made."

Bitter cold also plagued ski resorts. Blue Knob in Claysburg, Pa., was forced to close two Sundays in a row in January, says manager Emory Musselman, when temperatures dropped to "28 below and 38 below." But with the snow coverage deeper "than in the past 12 to 14 years," he hopes to make up the early losses with a longer season.

Elsewhere in the industry, the snow prompted one local business to try its hand at the ski trade. Sport Chevrolet of Silver Spring is advertising skier van conversions that include ski rack, boot compartment with drain for melting snow and similar accessories from $1,800 to $6,000. "We've had a lot of interest" in the first week, says truck manager Lew Rice, "but no takers yet."

At the United Airlines tour desk, Tek Conaway, an agent there for 10 years, says early travel to distant resorts was down from past seasons but has been picking up recently as news of snow depths in the Rockies spreads.

High inflation may be to blame for much of the nation's woes, but ski retailers say it hasn't had as much impact as the lack of snow--even with lift tickets bringing $16 to $21 per person per day on weekends.

"Inflation doesn't seem as if it has hurt," says Ski Haus' Fried. "The diehard skier is going to go, like a drinker after booze. As long as there's snow on the ground, we do business."

Another reason, he says, is that skiing is an expensive sport that draws "higher paid people" who don't feel that much of a pinch in their budget.

People are willing to pay for the thrill, adds Goldenburg. "One of the greatest excitements of life is a good run down the mountain. It's an exciting activity. It has to be to spend that kind of money."

Industry analysts suggest that while the skiing industry may not be recession-proof, it appears to be recession-resistant. But, says Ski Haus' Fried, "We're not snow-proof."

One indication of the impact nationally: Debbye Naber, editor of The Ski Industry Letter, reports that imports of ski equipment and clothing dropped from $111 million through October in 1980 to $76 million in the same period in 1981.

Washington's skiing population here may number as many as 330,000, estimates Ski Industries America, an association representing most of the nation's ski-equipment and clothing suppliers. In the '60s and early '70s--boom times nationally for the sport--the potential of this generally affluent market drew an increasing number of people into the ski-shop business, many of them longtime skiers hoping to profit from their pastime.

One such skier was Golladay, who 10 years ago--at 25 and just out of Montgomery College--joined with a tennis-playing partner to open the first Cabin John Tennis and Ski Shop. Two years later, they branched out with a second shop in Silver Spring and a year later with a third in Fairfax. "That was a time of growth," says Golladay.

"Tennis was really booming. Then the tennis industry went into a slump; there were too many tennis shops. And then the ski industry had two bad winters."

As a result, the Silver Spring and Fairfax shops both closed in the past year. Says Golladay: "We're back to the best location. We're having the best year in three years."

One of the newest shops is Ski and Sports of Springfield, opened in June. It is owned by Laqui Hoang, a former tennis pro from Vietnam. "Business is good for a new store. I'm very pleased. I think that we are very fortunate that this is the year we opened." He is planning to offer sales and rentals of windsurfing equipment to carry him through the summer.

Other shops limit themselves to ski equipment and close down for the summer. "I work 17 hours a day, 7 days a week during the season," says Goldenberg. "We put in as many hours in eight months as other people do in a year. We ski when the season is over. We go out West."

Despite the long days and the gamble with the weather, shop owners say they get a lot of enjoyment out of dealing with skiers. "To live is to ski; to ski is to live," says Goldenberg. And Old Town's Phillips adds: "The owners want to make money, but they know they're never going to be wealthy."

Retailers are cautiously optimistic for the future. Even if the snows don't come next year, says Golladay, the season should get off to a brisk start "because people will remember how good this year was."

Editor Naber of The Ski Industry Letter thinks the slump will persuade retailers to cut back on the number of brands of skis they carry and the models within each line. They will specialize, she says, "rather than have selections for the whole market."

Skiing's tremendous growth years may be leveling off, but analysts agree the sport is far from dying. As Goldenberg puts it:

"What else would somebody do in the wintertime?"