Don't put down that Perrier. In fact, for the sake of the economy, don't put down anything.

That's the message being broadcast by retailers and other area businesses after laying eyes on the latest round of marketing information for the Washington area.

At a time when the shock of rising energy costs, collapsing real estate values and threats of unemployment are pushing the nation's economy to the edge of a broad downturn, local economic forecasters say it may be increasingly the region's consumers who will determine whether the Washington area can hang on to its "recession-proof" reputation.

Traditionally one of America's richest urban centers, Washington area residents spend more money per household than residents in nearly every major U.S. city.

Retail sales in the area reached $30 billion last year -- more than $22,000 per household -- and 63 percent more than was spent a decade ago.

Why do Washingtonians spend so much? Quite simply, because they make so much. According to Sales and Marketing Management's 1990 Survey of Household Buying Power, the Washington region last year widened its longstanding lead over the 10 major markets when it comes to household income. In 1989, the typical household here earned $52,435 after taxes.

That's $12,000 more than the average for the nine other metropolitan areas, up from a gap of $10,000 the year before. In the next most affluent city, Boston, average household earnings trailed the D.C. area by $5,500.

Taken with other studies, the figures can be read to say one thing: The region's stock of young, upwardly mobile and professional consumers remains vital to the long-term health of the area's retail economy.

"We are extremely optimistic. We feel the demographics have never been better," David L. Leffler, vice president of Century Furniture Co., said about the Washington area market.

"You have the population with the highest income and with the baby boomers entering the marketplace ... Once we can balance out the economic environment, we think the '90s are going to be extremely strong."

A better understanding of the area's spending habits requires a better understanding of the typical Washingtonian.

"This market has more college graduates per capita, it has more $50,000 and above household incomes than any other market, and it really is a white collar market," said Bob Lerner, a retailer site-selection consultant with Smithy Braedon Co. "It is certainly one of the top affluent markets in the country."

Indeed, one out of five Washingtonians is an affluent urban dweller or its prototype -- a young, urban, educated single -- with keys to open the doors of good jobs and upward mobility.

Based on demographic analysis, these groups are typified by a relatively young median age, high education and income levels and white-collar or professional jobs.

By contrast, such people make up a fraction, from 7 percent to 13 percent, of the population in New York, Boston and Los Angeles.

In advertisers' terms, these young people are the most likely to buy new products, move into and furnish new homes and raise children.

"They like foreign imported beers and whiskey, gourmet ice cream, live entertainment and sporting events," said Rick Mastroianni, information director for Earle Palmer Brown in Bethesda, drawing from profile description created by the Donnelly Marketing Information Services.

Their product preferences extend to ethnic food, foreign travel, racquetball, skiing, frozen breakfast foods, imported white wines and frozen yogurt.

If one had to boil down all the motivations that go into spending in the region, one would find two dominant trends: conspicuousness and convenience.

For instance, the Washington area ranks third among the top 10 metropolitan areas in the country in retail sales per household, but leads all others in furniture and home furnishing sales per capita.

"It's an image-conscious town," said Christine E. Buvinger, director of showroom administration for Baker Furniture Co. in Chicago and a former Washingtonian. "People entertain and they want their homes to look nice."

They also like their clothes to look nice.

Upscale national retailers such as Nordstrom Inc. and R.H. Macy & Co. chose Washington as one of their chief expansion markets in recent years, and smaller stores have followed. According to Smithy Braedon's Lerner, the region is becoming a favorite of fashion retailers, boutiques and specialty shops.

Retail groups like Pier One, the Limited, Benetton, the Gap, Crate & Barrel, Williams-Sonoma and the White House also have opened new stores.

Meanwhile, he said, Nordstrom and Macy's will continue to build two to four new stores each here in the next 10 years. Analysts forecast continued success, although business may be thin in the immediate future.

"All of the chains are here, and every time a new mall goes up they're in it," said Virginia Ault, vice president of Stackig, Sanderson and White, the McLean advertising firm.

Other examples of Washington area spending: Imported cars are a favorite. Foreign autos make up about 34 percent of new sales nationwide, but count for about 60 percent of new car registrations in the District for the year through April, and 46 percent in the Washington area.

In particular, there are more Volvos registered in the District than Cadillacs, Chryslers, Dodges, Lincolns, Mercuries, Plymouths or Pontiacs, according to the R.L. Polk Company and the Automotive Trade Association National Capital Area.

The Washington area also is also considered one of the nation's top-selling areas for compact discs. Time-saving electrical appliances, particularly microwaves, also are good sellers.

Corner drug stores and take-out and delivery stores such as Domino's Pizza and Chinese food do well, too. Twenty percent of Washington area residents have had fast-food for dinner more than five times in the last three months, and 16 percent ordered out for food more than five times in that period, according to the 1989 Scarborough survey.

But there is a flip side to the hard-driving, fast-lane lifestyle. Increasingly, bargain and discount stores are making inroads into the market.

"People are more careful about their dollar and where they are going with it. They're making sure there are sales before they spend it," said Ault.

Hence the success of Ikea, Inc. and Marlo Furniture companies, and warehouse seller Price Club.

"I think the 1990s are going to be a value-based decade," Lerner said. "I think that service is fabulous but people ... have seen a lot of glitz in the '80s and they're ready for a change."

So the average Washington area consumer may not be quite the spring water-sipping, racquet-wielding urban technocrat popular in local folklore. Instead, he or she may be trying to wake from the buying binges of the 1980s.

"I went to a seminar the other day and people are tired of working," Ault said. "We're tired of the yuppie era, and I think people are traveling."

But that doesn't mean they're tired of having an extra buck.