The Labor Day weekend sales proved too much for George Nicolaides, the pace too intense, the crowds too fierce. Wilted and worn, Nicolaides picked up his shopping bags on Sunday and went home. He would return to hunt for bargains another day.

Yesterday was the day. Nicolaides, an Arlington restaurant owner, was back at the racks, clucking at the prices and grinning sheepishly at the thought of spending another $150 on blue jeans and shoes.

"We're always looking for good prices at Labor Day sales," he said. "But yesterday with the crowds at Syms we got tired. We had to wait 20 minutes just to pay!"

Organs and orlon socks and microwave ovens and movie cameras -- everything was on sale yesterday around the metropolitan area, or so it seemed. Labor Day, along with George Washington's Birthday, is to bargain hunters what St. Patrick's Day is to the Irish: a time for unabashed indulgence.

"I saw a guy walk out of here with eight suits the other day," said a salesman at Syms in Falls Church, where Labor Day marked the end of a two-week low-price bash. "Must've cost him a good thousand bucks, maybe more."

"I wasn't even looking for a sale," said Lou Sernoff, an attorney from the District. "We just got outside and saw these humongous crowds. I don't usually go out of my way to shop on Labor Day. But when I have absolutely nothing to do and it's boiling hot outside. . . . "

Boiling hot it was. With temperatures steaming up into the mid-90s, the refuge of an air-conditioned mall was bargain enough for some shoppers.

"Can you believe what it feels like out there?" asked an Arlington woman who stepped into the Woodward & Lothrop at Seven Corners in Falls Church to take a breather from the heat. She fanned herself with a folded sales slip and clutched an armful of packages. "I can't afford to buy too much -- just a blouse, a blazer, a dress and some lingerie -- but I can't afford to walk around forever on that parking lot either. I'll get sun stroke!"

For others, yesterday was a perfect chance to stock up for the fall.

"Oh, I don't know how many suits I'll buy, maybe two, maybe three," said Atul Shah, a gastroenterologist who is just starting his practice in Mechanicsville. In the men's department at Syms, he slipped on the jacket of a light gray Pierre Cardin three-piece suit and preened for his wife Aruna, who wore a traditional Indian sari.

"You look very nice," she said, fussing with his lapels.

For all but a few shoppers yesterday, the prices were pleasing surprises: blue jeans for $15, a half dozen pairs of socks for $10, shirts and slacks and blouses and suits marked down by a quarter or a third.

But Mabel Dail was wistful over all the bargains. "It just makes you sick to see how things have been cut down since the spring," said Dail, an Arlington grandmother shopping at Garfinckel's "a little for myself, but mostly for my children and grandchildren," she said.

She said she had seen a skirt identical to one she had bought in June. Then, she paid $62, she said; the skirt was priced yesterday at less than $30.

"Of course," she said, "I'm an old lady, as you can see. I'm not like a teen-ager who buys things and wears them all the time and then needs something new. I don't need so much.

"Of course, the prices today are very good. But I couldn't tell you right now how much I spent because my husband's standing here," she announced with a chuckle.