Local retailers were hoping for a blizzard of business from Veterans Day sales yesterday. Instead, they were snowed out.

"We opened all the stores early and got ready for a big party, but no one came," said Edwin K. Hoffman, chairman of Woodward & Lothrop Inc.

Business "is down about 30 percent from what we planned to do, and may be down even more if we close early," J. Warren Harris, chairman of the Hecht Co. said early yesterday afternoon, just minutes before Hecht's and Woodies decided to close their stores six hours early, at 3:30 p.m.

Meanwhile, at the Limited store in Tysons Corner, business was down 90 percent, said a manager, Cecelia Taylor. And the manager of the Coles Ethan Allen Galleries store in Bowie said she was closing for the day at 2 p.m. "The last person we saw in the store came at 10:30," she said.

Yesterday's poor showing came at a particularly nerve-racking time for area retailers, who already are anxiously awaiting the start of the Christmas season. With the stock market gyrating and consumer confidence in the economy declining, retailers already are worried that sales will be lower than they have hoped or planned for.

"Business is going to be terrible today," predicted Lane Miller, the director of the Foliograph Gallery in Tysons Corner Center. "This really is the start of the {Christmas} season. Thanksgiving is just down the street. They {customers} will stay home today . . . . The timing of this couldn't be worse."

Nonetheless, retailing executives were not ready yesterday to forecast a dreary Christmas, noting that the snowstorm was a one-day fluke in the weather.

What's more, most said they would extend their Veterans Day promotions for another few days to make sure shoppers take advantage of the sales.

The snowstorm did not keep all customers home. Business at the popular Potomac Mills shopping center in Dale City was as brisk as usual. "People are coming anyway," said Becky Miller, the center's assistant general manager. Some shoppers, such as Darla Flanagan of Dale City, brought their children with them and planned to stay all day. "My son said we have nothing to do at home, so why not go shopping," Flanagan said.

Similarly, the snow did not hamper the plans of Baltimore residents Mary Bass and Justine Jai Roberts, who drove for more than two hours to White Flint shopping center in Bethesda to indulge in their favorite pastime. "I'm a shopaholic," Roberts said. "I said, 'Even if we get stuck, we're going to try.' " By noon, they were loaded with shopping bags filled with Christmas gifts and had more shopping to do before trying to return home.

The most brisk sales, not surprisingly, were in winter clothing. "It's not going to be so bad," said Jennifer Csiszar, a sales clerk at the Raleigh's men's department in White Flint, who said jackets, coats, gloves, boots and hats were selling well.

"Boots are the specialty of the day," said David McCullom, assistant manager at Gentleman's Jodhpur in Tysons Corner. "Everybody wants snow boots. We've been doing well so far."

Other sales clerks were not so cheery, however. "We probably had six customers and rang up about $1,000 of business," said Sean Leonard, assistant manager of Bill's Carpet Warehouse in Rockville. During a typical Veterans Day sale, the store does about $15,000 to $20,000 of business, he said.

Mike Torrez, manager of the Erol's video store in Sterling, Va., had a similar tale of woe. Last year, he said, his store sold about $25,000 worth of televisions in its Veterans Day sale. This year, however, "we will be very very lucky to do $10,000 to $12,000," he said. The vast majority of his sales yesterday came during the first few hours the store was open, he said, but business quickly trailed off as the snow storm worsened. By 2:30 p.m., virtually no one was looking at televisions in the showroom.

But not all Erol's officials were so discouraged. They said they were counting on big business in their video-rental clubs, and dispatched all of their executives from corporate headquarters to local clubs to help out with the expected boom. "Last year, in the first big snowstorm, we did $100,000 more than we normally would have done," said spokesman Vans Stevenson.