Christmas shopping on-line is still more buzz than reality.

There's a lot to look at on the Internet _ but not much to buy. Many merchants display tempting wares and then tell customers to order by phone. And they usually offer just a slender sample of what's in their catalogs and stores.

Seeking a cozy comforter for someone on your list? Jump to the English Emporium's World Wide Web site. It features two types of duvets and six slipcovers _ but doesn't let you order on-line. A baseball fan might like a cap from the World War II-era Armed Forces Leagues. The Cooperstown Ball Cap Co. is just the place, but its Web site asks shoppers to print an order form and fax it to them.

America Online Inc., Prodigy Services Co. and other commercial services offer a bit more variety and instant ordering than retailers' sites on the Web, but their shopping areas are often marred by blurry photos, crude sketches, indistinguishable color choices and terse descriptions. Most can't hold a candle to the glossy catalogs that come this time of year, let alone the lavish displays at department stores.

``On-line shopping is fundamentally boring,'' says John McCrea, manager of the Web computer unit of Silicon Graphics Inc.

That hasn't stopped many stores and start-ups _ ranging from Sharper Image Corp. and J.C. Penney Co. to Cybershop and 1st Shopping Planet _ from going on-line. Shoppers Advantage, the on-line shopping mall of discount shopping club CUC International Inc., says Christmas sales are up 50 percent from last year. ``Based on our experience, on-line shopping is having a much merrier Christmas than retailing,'' says Walter Forbes, CUC's chief executive.

But while on-line retailing is growing fast, it remains a dust speck in the $2.2 trillion U.S. retail industry. Sales on-line will total about $350 million this year _ much of that from airline tickets rather than retail goods _ says Forrester Research Inc., a Cambridge, Mass., forecaster. That compares with an estimated $53 billion in U.S. catalog sales this year.

And, for now, going on-line instead of waiting in line doesn't exactly put you in the Christmas spirit. For one thing, few big retailers have joined the trend. Andrew Bezanson was hoping to flip through the Victoria's Secret lingerie catalog on the Internet _ but found nothing. Instead, the 30-year-old Marlborough, Mass., man ordered his girlfriend a monogrammed duffel bag from the Lands' End on-line service.

The Christmas shopping area of America Online opens with a cute cartoon scene of Santa and his elves. Rudolph's nose ``glows,'' getting brighter and dimmer. But a sportswear offering is illustrated with a dim photo of a man and woman in sweats. ``Champion sweatshirt for men and women,'' says the copy. ``Save 30 percent _ Slightly Imperfect.''

On a tour of L.L. Bean Inc.'s inventive Web site, you can see how the company hand-sews its shoes, learn Bean history, check on attractions at 900 national and state parks and browse through dozens of products in color photos with glowing descriptions.

But you can't buy a thing. Instead, browsers must call an 800 number, just like when thumbing through the L.L. Bean catalog. And before dialing, you may want to read the area called ``Our Concerns About Monitor Color Accuracy.'' That hunter-green blazer on the screen doesn't look much different from the black one.

Hundreds of Bean customers have asked for on-line ordering, says Dale Moore, the company's director of new-media technologies. The company plans to provide it next year, when on-line orders ``will certainly be a measurable and valuable revenue stream for us.'' But first he must ease customers' worries over credit-card pilfering and the privacy of their personal information.

A few weeks ago, Lands' End Inc. started taking orders over the Internet. Gary Gober of Monroe, Ga., gave his credit-card number to place a Christmas order for a stuffed bear. ``It was really nice and easy,'' he says of his first on-line shopping experience. Still, he plans to stick with print catalogs and store visits. ``Right now it's a novelty,'' he says.

That's why Lands' End views its on-line venture mainly as a way to connect with customers. Customers browsing the Lands' End Web site tend to make more comments about products and service than phone callers do, says Mike Atkin, vice president of marketing at the catalog company.

But on-line retailers are optimistic about the long-term potential for sales; next Christmas, they say, millions of people may do their shopping over the Internet, as concerns over credit-card security ease and high-speed connections proliferate.

Because of slow phone lines, on-line shopping today can take an eternity to download photos, and traipsing from store to store in cyberspace can take longer than it does in a real mall. And if malls seem confusing, shoppers may be out of luck when it comes to finding their way around the Web. ``You can't create this virtual shopping experience until the technology gets there,'' says Rob Rubin, a vice president of Inteco Corp., a Norwalk, Conn., market researcher.

But technology companies like Silicon Graphics Inc. and Sun Microsystems Inc. are working on ways to spice up static Web sites with 3-D graphics and animation. And someday, your own software ``agent'' may do your shopping for you, scouring the Web for the best deals. Andersen Consulting, General Magic Inc. and others are pursuing that.

With improved sites, customers could see instantly whether an item is in stock, and a retailer could mark down prices in seconds. Companies could save millions just by cutting back on catalog mailings. ``It could be an extremely cost-effective and profitable piece of business,'' says L.L. Bean's Mr. Moore.