A last-minute buying spree brought unexpected Christmas cheer to most Washington stores this year, but 1980 won't set many retailing records, local merchants reported yesterday.

The buying spree started Tuesday when the ice storm closed government offices and left thousands of people with nowhere to go but shopping. After a month of so-so sales, the malls went mad.

"The same thing happened Wednesday, and I think it's going on today," a spokesman for the retail bureau of the Metropolitan Washington Board of Trade said yesterday.

Despite that rush, "the whole year was slightly off," he added. "I don't think this has been a really super year for most retailers."

"It wasn't terrific; it wasn't terrible," agreed Martin Pfieffer, treasurer of the W. Bell & Co. catalogue showroom chain. "Sales did pick up the week before, giving us a fair Christmas season."

Like many stores, Bell increased its advertising and cut some of its prices in hopes of boosting business. Raleighs did the same thing starting its usual post-Christmas sale last Monday.

The tactic paid off in added sales, but will hurt profits when retailers close out the books on their selling season at the end of January. Retail profits have been soft for several months, and trade predictions are that few major stores will report record earnings this year.

Measured in dollars, many stores did as much business this Christmas as last year, but because this Christmas as last year, but because most items cost more than in 1979, the same number of dollars amounts to fewer units sold. Yet to move the same amount of merchandise, the stores had to pay inflated bills for labor, energy and other expenses. The result is likely to be profits about the same as, or a little below, last year's.

A conspicuous exeption is expected to be Neiman Marcus. The famous Neiman Marcus mail order catalogue pulled in 25 percent more business than last year, and sales of the stores are up 18 percent, said President Philip Miller.

Manager Anthony Hariman said the Texas chain's Washington store "had an excellent year. December was outstanding from the first day."

He explained that part of the reason business was so good is the rejuvenation of Mazza Gallarie, which has brought in several new merchants and revamped its fortress-like facade to draw shoppers into the multilevel mall.

The other part of the reason is that Neiman's affluent customers have money to spend even during downturns in the economy, Hairman admitted. "We were in a recession, theoretically, but it didn't affect my business. We didn't feel it as much as the middle-of-the-road department stores."

Other evaluations of Christmas volume closely parallel the affluence of stores' customers. To the surprise of no one, the high-end stores did great business; but with each step down the ladder, sales got a little worse.

Saks Fifth Avenue reported an excellent year: Woodward & Lothrop's season was no so good, but not really bad.

As a high-end discounter, Bell's sales were "fair." Pfieffer said. But "it was a difficult season" for Memco, said Dave Dorman, regional manager for the discount chain.And Mortimore Liebowitz of Morton's described it as "a miserable Christmas."

Most merchants saw the soft Christmas coming, and prepared for it by ordering less merchandise and planning a bigger advertising budget. As a result, they don't have a really big backlog of unsold goods to unload at the after-Christmas sales.

But the stores still are pushing hard to clean off their shelves and generate as much cash as possible before it comes time to pay for new spring merchandise.

The more cash they can raise now, the less they will have to borrow. At today's record interest rates, borrowing costs are cutting deeply into profits.