Whether the weather be cold or whether the weather be hot (like yesterday). Whether the weather be snow or whether the weather be not. Whatever the weather, inside the Beltway or wherever, retailers like it not.

In retailing, where you have to find a reason for every downturn, weather has been the traditional scapegoat.

Consider yesterday's steam bath that kept lunchtime shoppers inside their air-conditioned offices rather than outside window-shopping for bargains.

Or the most recent weather-bashing by a mob of retailers, who claimed sales in May were dampened by cold, wet weather. Nobody, it seemed, wanted to buy summer clothes, lumber, patio supplies, gardening equipment or air conditioners amid the spring cool.

And not content to blame just one month's climate, merchants then attacked February and March's unseasonably warm days and asserted that they tricked shoppers into thinking of bathing suits and barbecue at the wrong time.

But some say it's all hot air. "I think that there are times when weather can be a factor, but it's time that retailers came to grips with the undeniable reality -- weather may account for small up and down squiggles, but it's simply not right and not realistic to attribute to the weather major disappointments in sales," said Kurt Barnard, publisher of Barnard's Retail Marketing Report. "In blaming weather, retailers are just justifying poor sales to themselves, because they can't stand to look in the mirror and say, 'If it wasn't the weather, what is it really?' "

But reality seems to have nothing to do with it. Talk to a group of retailers and everyone tells you a different weather story.

Rain? Some say people abandon outdoor plans and hit the stores, while others insist that rain keeps customers home in bed with the sheets over their heads.

Sunny skies? Some retailers will tell you it makes store aisles barren as people do everything but shop. Others say sunshine makes people hopeful and happy and eager to buy.

Snow? It either stops business dead or spurs it because shoppers come out when they feel cooped up.

Drizzle, humidity, cloudiness, fog, sleet, low pressure system, high pressure system, hail, thunderstorms -- whatever the weather, retailers have war stories standing ready to recount.

"When we had a cold snap a few years ago and it was 20 degrees and under the whole time, business really dropped off," said John Olsson, owner of Olsson's Books and Records with five stores in the Washington area.

"It takes three days in a row of a heat wave to start moving air conditioners, and then we can't get enough of them in," said Neil Sanders, manager of D.C.'s Reliable Home Appliances, which has nine stores in the area. "First, the fans go and you can tell a trend is starting."

"One time in a major snow storm in Chicago, a blizzard at 70 degrees below, this guy came in to buy a watch battery," recalled Robert Baumgardner, now manager of Tiffany & Co. in Tysons Corner. "It was like a challenge to shop, that he could handle the elements if he had to."

Some people prefer to shop but not brave the elements.

"People love {certain} types of malls because they can see the sun and still be in a climate-controlled environment -- all weather seems to be good for a mall," said Scott Samson, director of marketing at the Fashion Centre at Pentagon City.

With all these conflicting forecasts, it's hard to know for sure what difference weather makes. And when pressed, most retailers admit weather is as old a fallback as the Saturday night hair-washing excuse is when trying to avoid a gruesome date.

"Ninety percent of the time, weather problems are not the reason for bad sales, though it's used a lot," said Tiffany's Baumgardner. "If there is some weather that makes it physically difficult to move, it may hurt business, but that's it. People will shop in any weather."

"A slowdown in consumer spending is exacerbated by weather, though weather is not the cause," said retail analyst Walter Loeb of Loeb Associates. "Weather only highlights problems."

Olsson agreed, but is sympathetic to retailers. "You can't blame people for trying to find some reason to explain bad news, but you also can't blame a soft year on bad weather," he said. "Weather suffers from an undeserved bad reputation."

But some weather watchers persist. "Figuring in the effect is justified and has a lot of credence," said Joseph Siegel, vice president of merchandising at the New York-based National Retail Federation, which represents 50,000 stores worldwide. "People buy as they need to, and if the weather is not quite right in a customer's mind, it will stop spending cold."

Maybe. And maybe not.

"Now sales of televisions, for example, are never affected by weather," said Reliable Home Appliances's Sanders. "The Superbowl, yes. Weather, no."