Even jolly old St. Nick may not be able to bring holiday cheer to some of the nation's retailers.

With the Christmas shopping season coming to a close, many storeowners fear their sales figures could fall short of the high expectations they had at the start of the season.

But there were some bright spots this Christmas. Apparel merchants found shoppers buying again after a few miserable years, and there was lots of interest in toys, 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, retailers were optimistic that consumers would shop enthusiastically this year, thanks to a healthy economy, low inflation and high levels of consumer confidence.

Despite reports of brisk buying in the first weeks of the season, many retailers failed to keep up with that pace through Christmas.

Contributing to the lackluster sales were high levels of consumer debt and foul weather in some parts of the country. And five fewer shopping days between Thanksgiving and Christmas cut out a bulk of crucial buying time.

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

But many retailers reserved judgment for the season until after New Year's, hoping a burst of buying before and after Christmas will help push up December sales.

Millions of shoppers crammed into the nation's stores right before the holiday to pick up last-minute gifts. Retailers opened their doors early and many ran sales _ some as much as 75 percent off _ to lure shoppers.

According to TeleCheck Services Inc., a check approval service, the amount 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.

Deep discounts and a midnight sale got shoppers into a Montgomery Ward department store in Denver on Monday, 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, who was eying the merchandise at a Gap store in New York Tuesday. ``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.

And early Thursday, the post-holiday frenzy begins. While many consumers will return and exchange gifts, others will be looking to buy what they didn't get for Christmas.

Sale racks will also entice shoppers. Many merchants avoided panic markdowns this year to clear out inventory, but lots planned traditional post-holiday sales.

Some of the best prices were expected to be found at consumer electronics and computer retailers, which suffered through one of their toughest holiday seasons in recent years due to waning demand.

Apparel, too, will likely go on sale, as clothing stores try to move out merchandise to make room for new goods. These markdowns come despite a successful season for apparel retailers, who thrived thanks to a rebounding interest in clothing.

``Apparel was up stronger than anticipated,'' said Walter Loeb, who runs the retail consulting firm Loeb Associates. ``Everything was selling and anything tied to clothes was selling _ ties, accessories, handbags.''

Other big winners this Christmas included jewelry stores and upscale retailers, with many shoppers willing to spend a little more on gifts. Toy retailers had a strong year, benefiting from the frenzy over Tickle Me Elmo and Holiday Barbie dolls and Nintendo 64 video games.

With Christmas nearing, many shoppers, including Caren Sexton, still had work to do.

``I've got too much,'' she said while sifting through turtlenecks at the Dress Barn Outlet at Williamsburg Outlet Mall in Lightfoot, Va. ``I left a whole lot until the last minute.''