In the last few years, the retail industry has broken its most sacred commandment by offering storewide sales before the crucial Christmas season.

Now, with this year's summer tomatoes still warm on the vine, retailers fear Christmas could come even sooner.

Major retailers here, including W. Bell & Co., the Hecht Co., Woodward & Lothrop Co., Nordstrom Inc. and others, have advertised promotions days after the traditional Labor Day sales usually end. According to many retail observers, R.H. Macy & Co. has been particularly aggressive because of its need to increase cash flow to pay off heavy debts.

Merchants, spooked last year by the pressure to match the sales started last fall by large, cash-hungry retailers, wonder whether consumer nervousness over the economy will create a sales frenzy once again -- only much earlier and lasting longer.

"There has been an overall loss of confidence by consumers for retailers, which we have to earn back," said David Pensky, president of Britches of Georgetowne. "It would be nice if we didn't have to be as promotional, but if it becomes a fact of life, we will have to address it."

They might not be able to avoid it, considering sluggish August sales results nationally.

"Sales will occur a lot earlier than last year, considering the conservatism of the consumer battered by the situation in the Middle East," said Kurt Barnard, publisher of Barnard's Retail Marketing Report. "Most retailers have leaner inventories, so they will not be as desperate to sell. But the minute sales activity drops, there will be a bloodletting."

That makes smaller retailers cringe. "The smaller merchant got pinched badly last year and if this occurs again, I don't know what we'd do," said F. Davis Camalier, chairman of the 60-year-old Camalier & Buckley, a 15-branch specialty goods chain. "All we can do right now is batten down the hatches and hang on."

Many retailers here said they were satisfied with their August sales figures, but are worried that those national troubles may get magnified in the consumer psyche because of bankruptcies and closings over the summer by some well-known area retailers, such as Garfinckel's department store chain, Arthur A. Adler men's clothing stores and Fantle's drugstores.

"Business is tough right now. ...," said John Whitacre, regional manager for the Seattle-based Nordstrom department store chain. "We do not have particular strategies in mind, except to have fresh and exciting merchandise and an intention to meet others' prices. We hope the customers will respond."

In the meantime, many retailers are being more conservative, say analysts, and are slower to commit to buying merchandise for Christmas, a time when merchants make more than 50 percent of their annual profit. "If the consumers wait, we will wait," said one retailer.

That notion that the 1980s consumer mantra of "shop till you drop" has turned to "why should we buy?" is forcing retailers to look for other ways to attract hard-to-get customers, without resorting to discounting.

Even the financially distressed Bloomingdale's, which many blamed for setting off last year's sales, is taking a wait-and-see attitude.

"We don't anticipate promotions, and we're trying to go away from them," said Ann Stock, spokesman for the retailer, whose parent company is working its way out of bankruptcy.

Others would like to renounce sales altogether. "It comes to a point that retailers begin to train customers to only buy on sale," said Blair Gordon, manager of the Georgetown University Shop in Chevy Chase, which is now holding a 50-percent-off sale to clear out spring and summer merchandise and then will go back to regular prices. "We think we have to stick to our guns to retrain them."