Truth be told, Richard Koehl would rather have been home watching football. But with the National Football League players on strike, there he was yesterday, shopping at a Hechinger Co. store at Bailey's Crossroads.

"I'd say it's the football strike," the Arlington resident said. "I wouldn't be out here if it weren't for that."

Another Hechinger's customer was out for a different reason. "This is one of the last weekends before the weather socks us in," he said, as he leaned on the piece of wallboard he had just purchased. "We've got to get out before that."

The football strike, the cold weather -- local merchants say that these factors lately have combined to help boost traffic in their stores substantially. But, alas, it's not the long-awaited consumer recovery, they say.

"Certainly, it's premature to say there's a recovery under way," said Martin Pfeifer, vice president and treasurer of W. Bell & Co. "I don't think the psychology really has changed that much. People are still cautious."

Leonard Kolodny, manager of the retail bureau at the Greater Washington Board of Trade, says there is no solid sign that retail sales are breaking out of the doldrums they've been in all year. "We are not seeing any recovery here in the Washington area," he said. "The general retail picture has been flat, essentially since the beginning of the year, except for occasional spurts of sales. . . . What we may have seen this past weekend was a spurt."

Indeed, merchants say stores have been more crowded the past couple of weekends than they have been in some time, but they attribute that to the cold snap after an unusually long spell of moderate weather.

"I would say that the biggest factor has been the weather," an official of one large department store said last week. "Sunday and Monday it finally got to the low 60s. That helps."

"The briskness of the temperatures tends to bring people in," said Antonio Caggiano, manager of Springfield Mall, who said the increase in business is typical at this time of year as fall weather sets in. "People begin to think about getting warmer clothing."

"Fall finally came," said Nonie England, spokeswoman for home-improvement giant Hechinger. "When the weather breaks, people start thinking about insulation and all the other things they can do to their houses to make them warmer in the winter."

Columbus Day sales also helped. "We had a Columbus Day promotion, and it stirred up some business," said Ike Diamond, promotions manager at Raleighs.

But another important factor was the National Football League players' strike, which seems to have turned Sunday's armchair quarterbacks into shoppers.

"On Sunday, certainly the fact that there were no football games could have been a contributing factor," Kolodny said.

"There's no question in our minds that, when there's not a football game, it's more crowded than when there is," Pfeifer said.

"Sundays have been good for the last two or three or four weeks," said another retail executive. "Obviously the strike has something to do with it."