Major retail stores that have boosted their promotional efforts reported brisk sales on the first day of the Christmas shopping season yesterday, but business was slower for some small merchants, and shoppers hardest hit by the recession said they were spending cautiously.

As shoppers flocked to area stores and suburban malls, local merchants said they were cautiously optimistic that Christmas sales would surpass last year's, providing the boost that economists say is needed to help end the nation's recession.

Traditionally, the day after Thanksgiving has been the biggest shopping day of the year. Merchants had been counting on a shopping surge that would reverse the trend in which sales nationwide had declined 1 percent in the first nine months of the year, compared to last year.

"Our traffic is very heavy," said Stewart Carroll, vice president and general manager of Bloomingdale's at Tysons Corner. "We're hoping for 5 to 10 percent above last year, at least."

An informal survey of area merchants yesterday found major retailers like Sears Roebuck & Co., Woodward & Lothrop Inc., the Hecht Co. and Zayre reporting their first pre-Christmas business as moderate to heavy. Officials in several regional shopping malls also reported that sales were the same or higher than last year.

"We were extremely busy in the mall today," reported Julie Becker, marketing director at Landover Mall in Prince George's County, adding that reports from merchants indicated they are "extremely positive" about the day's sales.

But smaller merchants from Prince George's County to the District's F Street corridor were less enthusiastic. "It looks like an average Friday afternoon," said Joe Doyle, assistant manager at Webster's Men's Wear in Forestville. "You get a lot of lookers. People are shopping around for better prices. They won't spend $39 for dress pants; they're buying pants for $21 to $27."

"They're doing more looking than buying," said Sung Kim, owner of Kay wigs on F Street NW, where only one customer was browsing through the rows of perfectly coifed mannequin heads. "They want the cheaper stuff."

Many shoppers yesterday reported the recession was making them more cautious -- people like Susan Titus and her mother, Louise Bishop, who had prepared a list of all the holiday sales before leaving home in Leesburg for a Washington-area shopping tour.

"I think everyone's so aware of inflation that as soon as they see a three-day sale, they jump on it," said Titus, loading Christmas gifts into her car at the Falls Church Zayre store.

"You have to cut your list down," said Rosa Hagens, pausing in front of the K-Mart at Forest Village Park Mall in Prince George's County. Hagens, who had come from New Jersey to visit relatives, is the wife of a laid-off auto worker. "Before, I'd get presents for my sisters and their children. Now I just buy one present for the whole house."

At Bloomingdale's, as with most other major stores around the area and the nation, heavy advertising and promotional campaigns were seen as the key to sales success this holiday season. Sales clerks on the store's ground floor yesterday offered to rub customers' backs with wooden massagers, and on the second floor, cashier Helen Hurd wrote up sales of "E.T." dolls steadily, as a television monitor above her displayed film clips from the motion picture.

It was all part of an effort to use gimmicks, glamour and showmanship to entice customers to loosen their purse strings. Pointing at the red-and-white "sale" tags atop clothing racks throughout his department at the downtown Woodward & Lothrop's, salesman Fred MacIntyre said the strategy seemed to be boosting his sales over last year's.

"We're marking things down earlier and deeper," he said. "We never used to start sales until the day after Christmas."

Meanwhile, at the fashionable Georgetown Park shopping mall, "everybody's smiling this year," said Charles Majdi, co-owner of Georgetowne Zoo, a shop that sells stuffed animals ranging from $5 cats to a $2,400 camel.

Emily Wallace, owner of the Old and New Times clock shop at Georgetown Park, said the upturn in sales at the mall is the result of new customer bravado. "Last year the economy was a new scare," she said. "This year people are used to it."

And up Wisconsin Avenue, Neiman-Marcus reported a brisk sale in Oriental rugs, ranging in price from about $1,000 to more than $13,000. "We're extremely pleased," said Jerry Murphy, the store's manager. "Luxury items are moving extremely well as they do every year."

John Harris, assistant manager of Zayre's Falls Church store, reported sales at last year's levels, despite heavy advertising and promotional campaigns. "It's nothing dynamite, but we're holding our own," he said.

Merchants at Tysons Corner Center weren't in a position to compare sales results with last year, but crowds at Tysons were "about the same as last year," said Stanley Jaffe, manager of the mall in Fairfax County. Jaffe said the center's 6,400-space parking lot was "100 percent full" most of the day.

Whatever the trends, Jeanine Powell, manager of Forest Village Park Mall's Frederick's of Hollywood, which sells women's lingerie, couldn't have been happier.

"You would think people would be buying less, but I'm steadily increasing my business," she said. "You know that old saying: When a woman's upset, buy her a hat. Well, Frederick's is like that. You might have a friend who gives you a coat or a tie every year. Then he pops up and buys you a G-string and it's a real tear."

Also contributing to this article were Washington Post staff writers Molly Moore, Chip Brown, Sandra Sugawara and Paul Hodge.