Every year after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. died, Ophelia Dorsey took his birthday off from her job as a mail clerk and housekeeper at George Washington University. It was a personal protest of sorts, the least she felt she could do in honor of "one of our country's true heroes."

But now that the day is a federal holiday and she is retired, Dorsey said, she saw no harm, felt no shame, in doing some casual browsing yesterday in the woman's clothing department at the Landover Mall Sears, one of several area stores staging sales.

"There's no point in me going and getting down on my knees," Dorsey said. "I've done that, and it's not going to bring him back."

Three years after the federal government began observing the slain civil rights leader's birth by shutting down, suburban retailers are discovering the advantages of opening for business as usual. While some may decry the situation, Martin Luther King Jr. Day is emerging as a major shopping day, as many other holidays have.

"Twenty to 30 years from now, this will become a commercialized holiday," said Harold Nelson, chairman of the Retail Bureau for the Greater Washington Board of Trade. "What was Christmas like 1,000 years ago? . . . I heard someone say today that if we can commercialize Christmas, then we can commercialize" the King holiday.

Encouraged by a day off from work or school and end-of-season clearance sales, families and groups of teen-agers roamed through shopping malls, scooping up bargains and just relaxing.

"I don't see anything wrong with it," said Jack Cooper, a Capitol Heights cabinetmaker out to buy his daughter a pair of sneakers. "The idea is to have people remember. Nothing says that you have to do your remembering at home."

Keith Monsegue, an assistant manager at the Cavalier men's store at Landover, said he had a hard time persuading his sales clerks to show up for work, even with the promise of a busier-than-usual Monday with bigger-than-usual commissions.

"They felt like they should have a day to say, 'This is for me and Dr. King.' But the bottom line is, the mall is open so we have to be open," Monsegue said.

Jackey Cleveland, a secretary from Greenbelt, said: "It's not exploiting his memory to have sales. It gives people a chance to be out and talking. It's really no different from any other holiday."

Yet there is evidence that not everyone shares that sentiment. Shoppers scanning newspaper advertisements over the long weekend may have noticed a few references to a "holiday sale."

These same ads inevitably failed to mention exactly what occasion was being commemorated. Unlike President's Day, for instance, which hardly passes without a picture of George Washington or Abraham Lincoln smiling from the front of a greenback, King's face was noticeably absent in the ads.

"I don't think it's a mature enough of a holiday," said Nelson of the Board of Trade. "The Fourth of July, Labor Day . . . Memorial Day are very old and established shopping days. The average retailer has not yet picked up on" the King holiday.

Odo Jordan Lowe, an IBM employee who took the day off even though her company does not recognize King's birthday as a holiday, had other ideas about the reluctance to associate sales with King. Observing a "sidewalk sale" at the Columbia Mall yesterday, Lowe said: "I think a lot of people still have problems with a holiday honoring Dr. King. Whether they want to recognize it or not, the people we put in Congress have declared this day for him."

Bobbie Crews, a sales associate at Woman's World Shoppe in Columbia, said she believed that King's memory would be strengthened if stores were to link his name with their promotions. "Most of the people out shopping today, especially the kids, I don't think they recognize that it is a national holiday in honor of him. But the more we got the word out that here was someone who stood for equality and justice for all, the better."

At Landover Mall, the most obvious reminders of King were the four voter registration tables that the Prince George's County Board of Elections had set up at each entrance. Officials reported they had signed up about 1,600 voters in four days.

"Most people are just taking the holiday for what it is -- another day off," Hopkins said. "But when they see us sitting here, they make the connection with King immediately."

Staff writer Keith Harriston contributed to this report.