Once upon a time, New Year's Day was only for nursing hangovers and watching football games.

But the force of economics and the lure of profits are rapidly gaining on tradition and making New Year's Day a major shopping day as well.

Extending a trend that first became apparent a year ago, most major department stores in the area -- including Woodward & Lothrop Inc., The Hecht Co., Garfinckel's, J.C. Penney Co., Montgomery Ward & Co. and Sears, Roebuck & Co. -- will be open for business today. They hope to sell to customers who find New Year's Day an oasis for shopping in their increasingly busy schedules.

And many retailers around the area are convinced that New Year's Day will become a big shopping day -- once enough consumers know the stores are open.

"If there's business to be done, we will be open -- and there's business to be done," said Robert Kiatta, Woodward & Lothrop Inc.'s senior vice president for stores. "New Year's Day no longer is a leisure day."

But the idea of New Year's Day shopping is not universally popular. Many smaller stores are balking at the idea, in part because they already are having trouble finding people to work during regular hours. However, failure to open stores, under leases in many malls, can result in hefty penalties and difficulties when it comes time to renegotiate a lease.

"I think {opening New Year's Day} is terrible, disgusting," said Arnold Bronfin, president of the The Complement, a local chain of accessory stores. "It's criminal to force your employes to do it. I refuse to do it."

Still, most major department stores and shopping malls plan to be open today.

"Realistically, if you don't like football, what else is there to do on New Year's Day?" asked Marty Bonda, who is store manager of Hahn's shoe store in Montgomery Mall and president of the mall's merchant association.

But Bonda added, "None of the merchants are really happy except the majors."

Hecht's stores opened last year when many malls were closed. "It was a real good day for us," recalled Hecht's chairman, J. Warren Harris.

This year, Garfinckel's and Raleigh's also will open their mall stores.

"In those {other chains} that were opened last year, the results showed there were a lot of people who want to shop," said David Nellis, a spokesman for Raleigh's, which owns Garfinckel's.

There still are a few holdouts, however.

Bloomingdale's, Neiman-Marcus, Lord & Taylor and I. Magnin will be closed.

As a result, so will White Flint shopping center in Rockville, where the major stores are Lord & Taylor, I. Magnin and Bloomingdale's.

"We're closed because we think it's one of the few sacred days left," said Barbara Hammer, store manager of Bloomingdale's Tysons Corner store. "With all the enormous demands on people's time, we felt it was not fair to ask more of our employes."

But retailers say it is precisely because of time constraints that New Year's Day has become an attractive shopping day.

In the Washington area in particular, where there are so many two-career families, few consumers have the time to do the shopping they want. New Year's Day gives them an extra day.

But coming right after the Christmas selling season, when shopping centers were ordering stores to open as early as 8 a.m. and stay open as late as 11 p.m., the requirement to open New Year's Day is particularly galling for the smaller retailers.

"Each year the malls insist on longer hours and start earlier each season," said Albert A. Foer, chairman of Melart Jewelers Inc. "Beyond the cost, we have a human resource problem {mall owners} don't understand. There are a limited number of employes you can get and still run a store the way you'd like."

Wherever Melart's leases permit, the stores will not be open, Foer said. "I don't care if we can make money or not. It's strictly on the basis of human resources that I don't want to open stores," he said.

Britches of Georgetowne President Richard Hindin has sent notices to his landlords saying the chain's stores won't open on the holiday. "We've drawn the line at New Year's Day," he said.

Technically, stores can be fined by mall managers for not opening when the rest of the mall is open. The fines vary, depending on the mall and the size of the store, but they can run into several hundreds of dollars.

But some retailers said it is unclear whether they will be fined. Last year, for instance, Montgomery Mall did not punish retailers that remained closed on New Year's Day, Bonda recalled.

When the trend toward opening on New Year's Day became serious a year ago, one small retailer wrote a letter to all of his landlords to complain. "I got only two letters back," said the retailer, who declined to be identified. "One said 'If you don't like it, we'll be glad to release you from the lease.' The other said, 'If you think this is bad, wait until next year.' The malls have everything to gain and nothing to lose."

But mall owners defend their policies, saying that under their contracts with the major department stores, they are obligated to open the shopping center when a majority of major stores will be open.

Besides, they say, the small retailers once complained about having to be open on Sundays. Now Sunday hours are standard.

"If people are shopping New Year's Day, then it's an indication people want to be here shopping," said Michael Sullivan, assistant manager of Fair Oaks shopping center. "Nobody is forcing them to be here."

With the Fourth of July having recently become a major shopping day in its own right, some retailers are wondering what comes next.

"It's only a matter of time before they think about opening on Thanksgiving and Christmas Day," said Michael R. Lavington, president of Kay Jewelers Inc.