The kids who got cash for Christmas, the ladies who wait all year for the January white sale and the men that Santa forgot all went shopping yesterday.

From Metro Center to Montgomery Mall they flocked 'round the cash registers like hungry relatives polishing off the turkey carcass.

They found candles, creches and Calvin Kleins at 30 percent to 50 percent off, but behind all the sale signs and holiday hype there were fewer bargains than last year.

Retail inventories generally are in good shape this season, merchants report, and that means there are fewer orphans to unload at the after-Christmas sales.

A surge of business on the last four shopping days helped to reduce stores' stocks. The amount of goods on the shelves already was smaller than usual because many retailers anticipated soft sales and prepared for them by ordering less.

"We're going to come out of the month of December pretty much as we planned," said William McDonald, vice president for sales promotion at Woodward & Lothrop, Washington's biggest department store chain and the most common barometer of D.C. retail sales.

Sales figures so far indicate Woodies will post "moderate sales gains" over last year, "but nothing more than what is required to keep up with inflation," McDonald said. "The summary of the Christmas season is that we look like good planners."

Final figures on retail sales won't be made public until the second week of January, but some preliminary reports generally are similiar to those from Woodward & Lothrop.

Leonard Kolodny, who gathers confidential retail sales data for the Greater Washington sales data for the Greater Washington Board of Trade, said "almost all retailers reported the last four days were fantastic."

Kolodny and McDonald agreed that Friday's sales were very good, Saturday's were the best of the year, Sunday was a little soft and Monday came back unexpectedly strong.

"A cross section of retail merchants in the metropolitan Washington area report the last four days of Christmas business closed with a strong bang, a surge in retail sales," said Kolodny.

The Board of Trade doesn't disclose sales figures for the area, but Kolodny said "most retailers reported beating last year's sales, and a few indicated comparable results."

He said the most unexpected aspect of the season's business pattern was the strength of the final days' business.

"On Monday people were doing a lot of last-minute, impromptu buying," said Kolodny. "That's buying as opposed to shopping."

President Carter's decision to give federal workers Monday off helped draw shoppers to suburban malls and downtown department stores. Kolodny said, however, that shops which cater to government office workers had a slow day on Monday.

Despite a solid selling season, retailers still found some soft spots in consumer spending patterns.

Outerwear -- particularly women's coats -- has sold poorly so far this year because Washington hasn't had a spell of continual cold weather. Clothing in general hasn't sold as well as durable goods.

But the fur coat business has been good despite a 25 percent increase in prices this fall, said Manny Miller of Miller's Furs on G Street, downtown.

"It was a good season; furs were strong," said Miller. "But there's really no pattern to it, no explanation." s

Miller said fur buyers seem to be responding to continually escalating prices -- up between 20 percent and 25 percent a year for the last four or five years -- by buying coats as an investment. Rising prices don't necessarily mean rising retail profits, because it's difficult to pass all the increase on to customers, he added. "Personally I'd rather be dealing with stable prices."

Inflation was the last thing on the mid of Danny Jackson, a Washington teenager, who walked past Miller's store yesterday with a new knit cap on his head and a $20 bill in his pocket. He said he was "looking for what I didn't get," but had yet to decide how to spend his Christmas money.

Squeezing a "Nerd" in an F Street bookstore, secretary Cynthia Arends said the pliable plaything -- one of this season's best sellers -- was "too silly" for her. She took a book.

The "Nerds" of the world are the problem that retailers now face -- the items that make great gifts often are items that nobody buys for himself or herself.

As shoppers can figure out from the advertising, stores generally have the most merchandise to move in their clothing, housewares and electronics departments.

Stereo stores also have had a poor season, forcing them to offer bigger and bigger discounts and to search for new ways to grab the consumers' attention. One of them found it yesterday, a final pitch to the shopper who's heard it all before: "Last sale of the "70s," the ad proclaimed.