It was one of those days when almost nobody could get what was wanted.

People couldn't get out of driveways. Home heating oil trucks couldn't get into driveways. Gas company crews couldn't get to work. Doctors couldn't get to hospitals. Food stores couldn't get enough clerks to keep the shelves stocked and hotels couldn't get enough help to make up the rooms that guests couldn't check out of. And no one could get a telephone operator.

Topping it all, though, Washington area retailers couldn't do business on George Washington's Birthday, traditionally one of the busiest retail sales days of the year.

As a result, columns of color TVs, marked down hundreds of dollars for a birthday sale, sat gathering dust at Hecht's department stores. Bunches of specially-priced Hoover vacuum cleaners never budged off the floors at Woodward & Lothrop. And rows of $98 Pierre Cardin suits hung limply on the racks at Raleighs.

For many area businesses, anxious to cash in big on holiday sales, yesterday was a retailing disaster. "It was almost a total loss," said Leonard Kolodny, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Washington Board of Trade. He estimated the cost to retailers would be in the tens of millions of dollars.

All major department stores were closed. So were the shopping centers, including the huge indoor malls in Maryland and Virginia, where snow crews spent the day clearing parking lots -- when they could find snow plows that hadn't been commandeered by the state police.

"It's one of those things you can't do much about," Waldo Burnside, president of Woodward & Lothrop, said philosophically: "The snow was so conclusive. It wasn't even a question of doing partial business." Burnside estimated that Woodward & Lothrop alone would lose about $1 million because of the storm.

Not all business was lost. In downtown Washington, Brooks Brothers clothing store stayed open for its regular daytime store hours with a skeleton staff of two who sold mostly sweaters and several pairs of rubber boots.

Many food stores in the area were open as well, thanks to Sunday night stock crews who stayed on hand to run the cash registers when stores opened yesterday. Many grocers reported vigorous sales and, in some cases, a rash of panic buying.

A number of the area's bars and restaurants did a brisk trade. The motels and hotels that were booked on Sunday stayed booked yesterday.

"Nobody's coming in and nobody's going out," said John Rooney, assistant manager of the Capital Hilton. "About 650 American Legion people are here and we have a full house. They are a little annoyed all the stores are closed, but they are having a wonderful time -- sitting at the bar talking."

Most businesses and companies that were closed yesterday are planning to open today, according to John Tydings, executive vice president of the Board of Trade. At least one -- the Marriott Corporation -- announced that its executive offices will reamin closed.

Hoping to recoup some of their losses, many of the area's major retailers said they will continue their sales specials today and possibly into next weekend. Several stores that are not normally open on Sunday, including Bloomingdaies and Lord and Taylor, announced they will be open next Sunday.

Meanwhile, spokesmen for the area's major utilities reported surprisingly few emergencies as people began to dig out of their homes. "Basically, we've had very few calls," said Doris Newcomb of the Potomac Electric Power Company. She said there was little worry about power lines falling because the snowfall was a light "dry" one that did not stick to any wires.

Of greater concern were isolated reports of people running out of home heating oil or having problems with gas lines.

"We're asking people to be patient," said Paul Young, spokesman for Washington Gas Light Company. "We are giving priority to emergency cases.

Gas line repair crews were hampered yesterday -- as was everyone else -- by snow-clogged streets. Young said that Sunday marked the heaviest day of gas usage was relatively low. "The snow acts as an insulator," he explained.

People dependent on home heating oil were cautioned to lower their thermostats to avoid running out of fuel in the next few days while oil companies attempt to catch up on automatic delivery appointments they missed Sunday and yesterday.

"There's really nothing you can do if you run out of fuel," said R. A. Burroughs of Metropolitan Fuels. "We're trying to get around as fast as we can. But we don't have wings on these trucks."