As the doors swung open at Prince George's Plaza in Hyattsville yesterday morning, Gloria Johnson of Northwest Washington was already there. And waiting.

With gift lists in hand, Johnson and a legion of other bargain-conscious shoppers descended on malls and retail stores in the Washington area yesterday, kicking off the first official day of Christmas shopping.

"I'm an artist at this," Johnson said later while examining an assortment of crystal Christmas tree ornaments in a downtown department store. "My strategy is to shop for what I call inexpensive quality."

But the malls and shopping centers were challenged by sunny skies and a break in the cold weather that enticed residents and visitors to visit the Post Office Pavilion and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and to pursue other leisure activities.

Caroline Amiot, a spokeswoman for the National Gallery of Art, said record numbers turned out to view the exhibit of works by 19th Century French impressionist painter Edgar Degas, which opened Thursday in the gallery's East Building.

On Thanksgiving Day, only about 6,000 perused the Degas collection, but Amiot said more than 25,000 visitors waited in line from 45 minutes to an hour yesterday to view the exhibit, which celebrates the 150th anniversity of the artist's birth.

"Obviously people were all eating turkey on Thanksgiving," Amiot said, "and I guess a lot of people who were in town visiting decided it was a good day to come out and see the show."

Although some observers said yesterday's crowds of shoppers were somewhat smaller than in previous years, they were optimistic that the traditional after-Thanksgiving sales would attract a substantial number of early Christmas shoppers.

Merchants said their stores got a helping hand by the weather, which reached a high temperature of 53 degrees yesterday, giving many shoppers who had already taken a day off from work a perfect excuse to get out of the house and spend money.

"People are not holding onto their money like they used to," said the satisfied manager of the Kay Bee Toy and Hobby Shop at Prince George's Plaza. "They have started to shop a little earlier than last year and my sales have been up about 30 percent. Last year was good and it would be hard to top, but this year could be better."

Many who took to the stores with charge cards and pocketbooks at the ready said they wanted to avoid the chaos of last minute shopping, while others said the day after Thanksgiving is the perfect day to gobble up bargains.

"Shopping earlier is worth it. I hate fighting the mobs," said Liz Follin of College Park. "I always start shopping around Thanksgiving."

Some store managers, anticipating the rush of Christmas season euphoria that normally follows Thanksgiving, had already completed decorations. Display windows were festooned with plastic wreaths, artificial Christmas trees and glittering tinsel, but no mistletoe.

"This is the season to be spending," said one manager.

At Prince George's Plaza, Muzak piped in tireless favorites like "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" and other holiday songs to help keep shoppers in the mood. Parents with toddlers in tow lined up for a brief photo session at $5.29 a head with a Santa Claus who seemed woefully underweight. But the children didn't seem to mind.

Conscientious shoppers who decided to get an early start on the seasonal task of matching the right gift to the right person all seemed to have a personalized course of action for their assault on the stores.

"I shop where I can find the best deals," said Margarita Lopez of Takoma Park, shopping with her 5-year-old son Tony and his 3-year-old sister Lizzy. "I waited too late last year, and I've decided to get started earlier this time."

While some chose the potpourri of shops and the convenience of shopping indoors at the Prince George's mall, others said they preferred the open air experience of shopping downtown.

"I love Washington and I love to shop in town," said Shelby Poage of Southwest, "besides, I like to walk around."