Although consumer attitudes and the state of the economy were very much on the minds of Washington area merchants going into the final week of the Christmas shopping season, most tended to agree that the weather probably will mean the difference between lackluster and robust sales.

In fact, retailers probably watch the daily and extended weather forecasts as closely as they keep track of sales figures and inventory this time of year.

The weather doesn't simply play a large role in the timing of Christmas sales; it can influence sales volume, one industry expert said.

"Call it nostalgia or whatever, but cold weather and snow appear to be a successful prescription for improving Christmas sales," said Kenneth M. Gassman Jr., vice president and retail analyst at Wheat First Securities.

While the average retailer probably can't cite empirical evidence to show that colder weather induces consumers to shop more during the Christmas shopping season, the belief that it does is widely accepted as fact.

Retail sales in metropolitan Washington were flat through Dec. 11, compared with sales volumes in last year's shopping season. The retail bureau of the Greater Washington Board of Trade attributed the dull sales performance to unseasonably warm weather.

"It's not conducive for shopping for the holiday season -- aside from other factors," said bureau manager Leonard Kolodny.

A recent survey of area merchants showed that major chains and operators of high-end specialty stores were doing much better than smaller retailers because of huge outlays for advertising and promotion.

And it's been suggested that the downturn in the economy is having a greater impact on small independent stores and discount merchants because their customers have less disposable income this year.

The chairman of Morton's department stores disagrees with that assessment, however, citing the weather as the more telling factor. " The weather becomes more of a key as the economic level gets lower," Mortimer Lebowitz said.

"October and November were fine, and after Thanksgiving, we were geared for the cold weather but it never came," Lebowitz added.

Lebowitz said his customers buy "geared to their needs" and, at this time of year in particular, that generally means buying new outerwear. But that also holds true for consumers at higher income levels, and the warm weather that followed Thanksgiving took the joy out of Christmas for more than a few area retailers.

"The earlier we have cold weather in December, the sooner consumers begin to think Christmas and the sooner they start their shopping," observed one retail analyst. "Add a little snow to this cold weather, and sales usually increase."

Add six to eight inches as the first winter snowstorm did Sunday before last and the net result for retailers is likely to be worse however. Indeed, some retailers described that day as a disaster.

"A lot of promotions and advertising were geared for that weekend," Kolodny explained. But hazardous driving conditions caused by the snow forced consumers to shun the area's shopping centers and, "most stores probably did not make their plans," Kolodny noted.

Most area retailers last week reported sales were ahead of last season's pace despite the recession and warm weather in early December. Nonetheless, most are counting on a last-minute surge of buying by consumers and hoping for brisk weather through Friday.

The extended weather forecast for the area for today through Saturday calls for partly cloudy conditions with a chance of precipitation tomorrow and Saturday. Highs are expected to be in the 40s to near 50. The normal high for this time of year is 44.

If Christmas sales for area merchants are less than spectacular this year, retailers can always blame the weather.