Northern Virginians spend less per person on lottery tickets than do residents of any other part of the state, prompting new efforts by Virginia officials to boost sales in the area.

Sales are particularly slow for the eight-month-old, million-dollar Lotto game, with Fairfax County trailing other Northern Virginia localities in per-capita purchases.

The typical Fairfax resident has bought only five $1 Lotto chances since the start of the year, while residents of Arlington and Alexandria have bought more than seven tickets apiece and the typical Prince William or Loudoun resident has bought nearly nine, officials say. The state average is 18 Lotto chances.

The poor performance by the state's richest county and region has surprised lottery officials. Their studies show that the typical Virginia lottery customer is middle class and relatively well educated, a profile that fits many Northern Virginians. Yet the region swims against the statewide tide of people with high incomes being the best customers for the million-dollar-plus Lotto game.

Overall, only remote Highland County has had per-person sales lower than Fairfax's in the two years since Virginia started the lottery with scratch-off games. Half the $1 billion in total statewide sales in that time has been awarded in prizes.

State Lottery Director Kenneth Thorson and his staff have crunched a few numbers and employed a lot of pop sociology to come up with some theories about Northern Virginia's poor sales.

One suggestion by state officials is that the prospect of winning a million dollars or two doesn't exactly excite many Northern Virginians, whose median salaries are as much as $30,000 above the state median of about $39,000.

Another theory is that there aren't enough places to play the computerized Pick 3 and Lotto games in the region, and that the existing locations are relatively inconvenient. The major grocery chains and state liquor stores don't sell the computerized games, and heavy traffic actually may deter some would-be players from making special trips to convenience stores to play, Thorson said.

There is some reason to believe, according to lottery officials, that area residents are still buying quite a few tickets in the District and Maryland, which have had lotteries longer than Virginia, offer more variety, often boast bigger jackpots, pay larger instant cash prizes and sell tickets in grocery and liquor stores.

The sagging Northern Virginia sales are particularly worrisome because the games have become essential to Gov. L. Douglas Wilder's plans to balance the state budget. The state lottery system was to have financed college construction and other special projects, but hard times have forced a change.

Virginia, Maryland and the District all report lottery sales increasing overall, though Maryland officials say they don't know how purchases in Montgomery and Prince George's counties -- among the wealthiest areas in the state -- compare with the rest of Maryland.

Officials have discovered that instant tickets sell well in Northern Virginia, despite the relatively low prizes. The scratch-off games are available at about 1,000 locations.

The computerized games -- Pick 3 and Lotto -- can be played at fewer than 370 retailers in Northern Virginia, primarily at convenience stores. The big grocery chains are hesitant to tie up checkout lines or increase labor costs by manning the numbers-selection games.

The way Thorson sees it, many Northern Virginians do their weekly shopping in one trip, stopping at the grocery store and a few nearby shops.

"It's a big mistake to get out of the traffic stream" during rush hour, Thorson said. Fairfax County Board Chairman Audrey Moore agreed: "I think that might have a lot to do with" the low sales.

In an effort to increase sales in Northern Virginia, Thorson is planning to buy self-service machines, akin to automatic bank tellers, that will dispense Pick 3 and Lotto tickets at new locations. And he plans to set up a mail subscription service in which tickets can be bought up to a year in advance of drawings. Thorson says both innovations could be in place within a year.

Also, beginning Oct. 31, Virginia will start conducting two Lotto drawings each week in an effort to roll up prizes more quickly and increase overall sales.

Another idea being considered -- selling lottery chances in state-run liquor stores -- has raised concerns that the government would be competing with private retailers and that state-sponsored gambling would be associated negatively with liquor.

Spokesmen for the Giant and Safeway grocery chains said they would consider placing self-service lottery machines in their stores.

Arlington resident Jim McCusker may personify Virginia's lottery woes.

When the Maryland Lotto jackpot tops $10 million, McCusker said he waits "until after 1 p.m., and I shoot across the {Woodrow} Wilson Bridge" to buy tickets.

McCusker says he likes the Virginia Lotto and recently bought five tickets, even though the jackpot was less than $3 million. But, "If I win that, I'll probably turn it back," he quipped. "I've got my pride."