Local retailers had a hard time discovering customers willing to open their wallets on Columbus Day yesterday, with fears about the federal budget impasse overshadowing the federal holiday and widespread markdowns across the area.

"The uncertainty is pretty scary," said Leslie Street, manager of the White Flint Mall branch of Compagnie Generale Aeropostale, a specialty clothing chain. "And that makes people more conservative in their purchases."

Many retailers, surveyed informally throughout the region yesterday, blamed the unsettled negotiations over the federal budget for their lackluster sales yesterday and over the weekend, as government workers and others kept their billfolds buried deep in their pockets.

Sales at Hamilton Luggage and Handbags in Alexandria's Landmark Center were down more than 50 percent on Saturday from typical averages -- while other stores had similar results, according to many -- and customer traffic was slow.

"Lots of people mentioned that they may have to start cutting back because of the possibility of furloughs and new taxes," said Toni Gilmer, manager of the Hamilton store. "With the crisis in the Mideast and the possibility of recession on top of that, there have definitely been some dents in spending."

Most malls and shopping centers were moderately busy, as federal employees and other workers throughout the region took the day off. And many retailers noted that store traffic got a boost from legions of wayward tourists with nowhere else to go, since the budget impasse also shut down monuments and museums.

Still, according to many, the overall mood was one of "just browsing," on the first important sales day of the fourth quarter, the most important quarter of the retail year because that's when many stores have the bulk of their sales.

"Business is good for a Monday, but not too good for a holiday," said Laurie Kiser, manager at Impostors, a costume jewelry store at the Fashion Centre at Pentagon City. "So many customers are telling me that they will be back next week to buy if things work out."

To get them there, retailers are gearing up for what will likely be a highly promotional fall and holiday season. Signs announcing sales and sharp discounts were already sprouting like weeds -- 30 percent, 50 percent, 75 percent off -- all over stores, earlier in the season than ever before.

"We've got a great sale going right now and they are still just looking," said Paul Bullard, a salesman at Littman Jewelers in Landmark Center. "People are much more conscious of exactly what they are buying."

Angie Maloney, area manager for Georgetown Leather Design, said sales have been good at the leather goods store. "But people are not buying on impulse like they did before -- they are looking for bargains," said Maloney. "So as soon as we feel declines, we are ready to do more promotions, advertising and layaway programs."

The effort may tax retailers. "Last year, retailers were exhausted, taking off and putting on sale signs all the time," said Hamilton Luggage's Gilmer. "But it looks like it's going to be the same this year."

That makes shoppers pretty happy, though still wary.

"Sales used to mean merchandise that you did not want in the first place, and now the stuff is great," said Mary White, a District teacher shopping at White Flint in Rockville yesterday. "Still, I think everybody is thinking twice before they buy, because of all the worries like the gas prices, the possible war with Iraq and the federal budget problems."

At the Hecht's store in Landmark Center, Alexandria city employee Paul Story said he was being careful about any major purchases. "I'm not worried about my job, but I've seen many of my friends in construction and real estate losing their jobs, so it makes me nervous."

Ken Faberman, a furniture dealer in Silver Spring who was shopping at White Flint, said he had lived in Dallas during the Southwest's economic slide several years ago. "I've learned to live within my means by not running up too many bills and buying only when I need to," he said. "But I think the economy will go up again, so I'm not too worried."

But such concerns don't affect everyone. One woman shopping at the designer dress salon at Bloomingdale's in White Flint said she was rich enough not to think about furloughs and finances. "Nothing ever affects my spending," she said.