NEW YORK — The nation’s retailers continued to drag last week, a sign that this Thursday’s reports on December selling won’t be pretty.

But while sales will no doubt come up disappointing, inventories are said to be generally in line, which will help the overall financial picture.

U.S. Bancorp Piper Jaffray expects December same-store sales to rise 1.8 percent, with the specialty sector showing a modest 0.4 percent gain and mass merchants up 1.9 percent. That’s much lower than an earlier forecast from the National Retail Federation of a 3.5 to 4 percent gain.

Aside from a rush of shopping right after Thanksgiving and in the days just before and after Christmas, the season’s traffic was hindered by snow, layoff concerns, fears of war with Iraq and lackluster merchandise offerings. In the 12 days since Christmas, there’s been no relief.

"After Christmas was disappointing," said Hal Kahn, chairman and chief executive of Macy’s East. "We lost about four days due to snow. Boston and Albany got snowed out this past weekend. But we’ll be OK. I’m not disappointed because I didn’t expect a great Christmas."

Bloomingdale’s chairman and ceo Michael Gould concurred that since New Year’s, "it’s been a tougher week." Still,"inventories are very liquid."

Kahn added, "Macy’s inventories will be on plan or off less than 1 percent" when the store moves fully into spring.

"We’re doing our best to get the bulk of our receipts in by the middle of the month," said Ed Burstell, vice president and general manager at Henri Bendel. "We are actually much cleaner than we had projected. And some of those things that you would mark down already, like cold weather items, are still selling through quite well. All of this weather is obviously helping the sales of gloves, hats and scarves."

Burstell said not everybody is bargain hunting. "We delivered a silk sweater program for spring. It’s snowing outside, but customers are buying silk sweaters in 12 different colors."

Most retailers wisely planned conservatively, and sometimes discovered a downside to that. "Our only problem right now is that we don’t have enough sale merchandise in stores," said Jeffrey Kalinsky, owner of the Jeffrey stores in New York and Atlanta.J.C. Penney on Monday said sales at its department stores were on plan through the first week of the January period, which overall calls for comp-store sales to be flat or slightly up. The best areas were fine jewelry, children’s and home. Catalog sales are expected to be down about 25 percent for the month.

Piper Jaffray senior analyst Jeff Klinefelter estimated Gap and Kohl’s would report comps 3 to 5 percent ahead for December, and Pacific Sunwear possibly a point higher. Wal-Mart will gain 2 to 3 percent and Aeropostale, 1 to 3 percent. However, Abercrombie & Fitch was estimated down 4 to 6 percent; American Eagle down 6 to 8 percent, and Bebe down 10 to 12 percent.

Specialty chains, according to estimates from analyst Mark A. Friedman of Merrill Lynch, will report December same-store sales flat to 2 percent ahead, versus a 4 percent decline a year ago.

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