Retail merchants in metropolitan Washington are counting heavily on better weather for the up-coming George Washington's birthday weekend to help them recoup a substantial portion of the heavy losses they suffered because of last weekend's snow.

The storm that dumped more than 17 inches on the area last Friday caused a virtual shutdown of commerce and government and cost millions of dollars in lost business, particularly for retailers.

No estimate of the amount of the losses was available yesterday, but the storm "impacted just about every type of business in the area," said John Tydings, executive vice president of the Greater Washington Board of Trade.

While sales and profits may be made up later in many cases, several merchants said it is doubtful that lost retail sales will be recovered totally during heavily promoted Washington's birthday sales next week.

"Clearly there was a loss of business, but there is no way to get a handle on it in terms of dollar amounts," said a spokesman for the Greater Washington Board of Trade's retail bureau. Merchants are reassessing their plans for Washington Birthday sales in an effort to recapture some lost sales, the representative added.

"To say the blizzard was tough for the retail business is an understatement," lamented G. Joseph Reddington, regional general manager for Sears, Roebuck & Co.

From the standpoint of timing, however, Reddington added, it was better to have had the storm hit last weekend instead of during the holiday. Four years ago, a similar blizzard blanketed the area on Washington's birthday and all but wiped out the biggest retail sales weekend of the year.

Reddington predicted that merchants will "get some of [last week's] business back" but he declined to estimate how much.

"You never can be sure whether it will come back," added Robert J. Mulligan, vice chairman of Washington-based Woodward & Lothrop Inc.

Retailers saved money on utility expenses, payroll and advertising when they were forced to close because of the storm, but those savings aren't sufficient to make up for the lost sales, Mulligan noted.

Any sales that food stores might have lost on Friday were offset, for the most part, by a brisk business before and after the storm.

Spokesmen for Safeway Stores and Giant Food Inc. said customers flocked to their stores last Wednesday and Thursday after the storm was predicted. "We had a super week which made up for a rather soft business on Friday and Saturday," said Safeway's Ernie Moore.

Florists bemoaned the loss of yesterday's Valentine's day business because snowy streets snarled flower deliveries that were already hampered by the independent truckers' strike.

The storm was a mixed blessing for some Washington hotels, which typically have more vacant rooms on weekends because there are fewer business guests then. Several hotels picked up unexpected business when stranded commuters were forced to spend the night downtown.

The industry did not enjoy a windfall of weekend business, however, said Leonard Hickman, executive vice president of the Hotel Association of Washington. "It depended on where the hotels were located," Hickman said.

Hotels, like many other businesses, were hard-pressed to maintain normal operations because employes couldn't get to work. At the Sheraton Washington Hotel, manager Hans Jaspers and sales personnel were forced to fill in for absent members of the housekeeping staff. Jaspers said he made 40 beds Saturday--more than twice the normal number assigned to a housekeeper.

Delegates attending conventions at area hotels this week apparently had little difficulty getting to Washington yesterday after the massive tie-ups at airports here and elsewhere along the East Coast last weekend. All 1,300 out-of-town delegates to the Potato Chip Snack Food Association's convention at the Sheraton Washington were registered by mid-afternoon yesterday.

Restaurants generally experienced a sizable loss over the weekend that won't be recaptured, but neighborhood restaurants fared better than others, said Carl D. Longley, president of the Restaurant Association of Washington.

Longley, who also is president of B&B Caterers, said his firm did surprisingly well compared with restaurants. Catering cancellations were less than 20 percent, he said.

The numbers were far less encouraging for producers of last weekend's high-fidelity show at Washington's new Convention Center.

Co-producer M. Robert Rogers acknowledged that the snowstorm and termination of Metrorail and bus service affected attendance. Rogers claimed the show attracted 500 paying patrons Friday night and a total of 13,000 on Saturday and Sunday, but convention center officials reported only 14 paying customers on Friday and 8,000 paid admissions for the three-day event.