In the small shopping centers that dot neighborhoods throughout the Washington area, the cash registers in many shops are barely ringing, and growing numbers of storefronts in the newest strip malls are sitting empty.

"On Columbus Day weekend . . . I had two zero days," said Winifred Hamilton, co-owner of Wingeo Jewelry and Fashions in Woodbridge. "This was the worst September since I opened" in 1988.

Only four stores are open in Dumfries' one-year-old Coach House Plaza. A fifth has closed and "For Lease" signs are taped to more than a dozen vacant windows.

No one is seeking to rent the empty stores. Retail leasing specialist Kenneth Goldberg says his firm, Carey Winston, now receives only a handful of requests for small stores. He used to get hundreds of calls each week.

The Main Street of suburbia is struggling.

When new subdivisions sprouted out of the cornfields and forests outside Washington in recent years, strip malls weren't far behind, bringing stores and services to the instant neighborhoods that never had time to develop traditional towns.

Long, low rows of shops sharing a parking lot and a canopy -- in brick, unfinished wood or modernist white with bright-colored trim, depending on the developer -- have become a feature of the suburban landscape from Howard to Loudoun. Each center, from Centreville Crossing to Potomac Festival, features the same basic lineup of supermarket, drug store, dry cleaners and video rental store.

The strip malls also drew a more eclectic group of small family-run stores whose owners hoped their gift shop, pet store or jewelry store would attract suburbanites with a little extra money to spend.

Now these small Virginia and Maryland store owners are being hurt. The housing slump has slowed the flood of new customers, and shoppers are retrenching in preparation for economic trouble.

"No one drives in here," said Bill Dye, who 12 weeks ago opened J.R.'s Sport and Pro Shop in Coach House Plaza, which has been taken over from developers Robert and Mary Hahn by Citizens Savings Bank. "The only time I've had business is when I had {a} sign out" on the road.

Small store owners often sell items that people do without in harder times -- jewelry, gifts and paper goods -- so they are left fighting for the same scarce customers.

"A card and gift shop only works in your higher-disposable-income areas. You put six of them in McLean and they'll do fine, but you put six on Route 1 and there will only be business for one," said A.J. Dwoskin, who owns 16 strip shopping centers in the Washington area.

Hamilton's experience with Wingeo Jewelry and Fashion is typical. Most days, she sees 10 to 12 people enter her store in Smoketown Plaza. She spends more on rent and security -- a total of $2,700 monthly -- than she does on inventory, and cuts costs by cleaning the store herself.

Hamilton had hoped by now, her third year in business, that she would be able to hire another sales clerk, but she's not breaking even. Business has been tough since last fall, she said, adding, "How many times have you seen a Christmas where everything was on sale?"

But this summer, even her regular customers stopped spending money.

"A lot of them are house-poor and scared to death they are going to lose their jobs," she said.

Retail sales have been flat in the Washington area for several years and actually declined in 1989 if inflation is taken into account, according to the Census Bureau. Sales totaled $32 billion in 1989, only a 2.5 percent increase over 1988, while inflation rose about 4 percent, said Robert Griffiths, an economic analyst for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.Developers of small shopping centers in turn are finding fewer tenants, and many half-empty centers don't pull in enough shoppers to keep the existing stores alive, real estate specialists say.

"They've been building shopping centers in front of, behind and beside other centers . . . . It's been obvious for a long time that they are overbuilt," said Carl Saperstein, who owns a small business and serves on the Fairfax Chamber of Commerce's retail committee.

State officials don't keep track of shopping center openings, but in Maryland the total number of stores statewide rose 4.9 percent, to 116,470, between the 1989 and 1990 fiscal years, said Assistant Comptroller Marvin A. Bond. Much of the growth was in small neighborhood shopping centers, he said.

In Virginia, the number of stores -- excluding gasoline stations and automobile lots -- rose 7.2 percent to 123,570, according to Roy L. Pearson, director of the College of William and Mary's Bureau of Business Research.

The increases are more dramatic in the outer Washington suburbs, where land is cheaper. Prince William gained 333 stores, an 11 percent jump, from 1988 to 1989, Pearson said.

"We're very afraid that as the economy softens that the mom and pops {family-owned stores} that are living from rent check to rent check will get into trouble," said a leasing agent for Trammell Crow, which has built about a dozen Festival centers around the Washington area.

Some owners and leasing agents at small shopping centers say they now routinely offer three to six months free rent to small tenants, something they never would have done last year. "I get the perception that {small-business owners} are sitting on the sidelines until this whole thing shakes out," said Goldberg, Carey Winston's retail leasing specialist.

The economic climate does not seem to be quite as bad in Maryland as in Virginia, according to Maryland Chamber of Commerce officials, who say the retail slump there has been confined to only a few categories of stores.

Staff writer Kara Swisher contributed to this report.