It's looking like a ho-ho-hum Christmas for the nation's retailers.

Many storeowners fear their sales figures could fall short of the high expectations they had at the start of the season.

There were some bright spots. Clothing stores found shoppers buying again after a few miserable years, and there was lots of interest in toys (especially Tickle Me Elmo dolls, Barbie and Nintendo 64 video games), jewelry and home furnishings.

``Was it great? No,'' said Robert Burton, director of investor relations at Kmart Corp. ``We saw a modest improvement this Christmas and retailers in general had to work hard to get the gains they had.''

After the very disappointing Christmas of 1995, stores were optimistic that shoppers would spend enthusiastically this year, thanks to a healthy economy, and brisk buying was reported in first weeks of the season. But many stores failed to keep up the pace.

The lackluster sales were attributed in part to high levels of consumer debt and foul weather in parts of the country. There were also five fewer shopping days between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

``Each of our divisions were below plan for the week'' ended Dec. 21, said Susan Eich, spokeswoman for Dayton-Hudson Corp., which operates three department store chains, the Target discount stores and Mervyn's clothing stores.

According to TeleCheck Services Inc., a check approval service, the volume of sales paid for by check in the first 24 days of the Christmas season rose a moderate 5.7 percent from a year ago.

Many stores reserved judgment until after New Year's, hoping a burst of buying before and after Christmas would help push up December sales.

With time running out, millions of shoppers rushed to pick up last-minute gifts.

Deep discounts and a midnight sale got shoppers into a Montgomery Ward department store in Denver, and it took 20 minutes just to get out of the parking lot at Patrick Henry Mall in Newport News, Va.

``A few more things to get and then it's time to wrap all this stuff,'' said Lisa Schmidt, shopping at a Gap store in New York. ``I never get it all done until the last day.''

Chris Passanisi claimed to be ``an avowed last-minute shopper.''

``It gets much more focused,'' said Passanisi as he scanned the floor guide at a Boston department store. ``You're going with your gut reactions.''

But even he admitted he was ``sweating over the kids''' presents.

Boston attorney Alison Brodie had planned to be on the road to her family's house in Connecticut on Tuesday afternoon. But she still had three people on her gift list.

``I hate it. It's crazy. I mean, it's people bumping into each other. I think everyone's getting a little bit frantic,'' she said.

New Yorker Rosa Ortiz said her late shopping was out of necessity. She was lugging a big bag of sheets and towels for her daughter and son-in-law, who live with her.

``I had to do it at the last minute. The big stuff's too hard to hide,'' she said.

Many stores avoided panic markdowns this year, but lots plan the usual post-holiday sales.

Some of the best prices are expected to be found at computer and electronics stores, which suffered through one of their toughest holiday seasons in recent years because of slack demand.