The ghost of Christmas presents came back to haunt Toys R Us yesterday.

The nation's leading toy chain stunned the retail industry by reporting disappointing sales during the holiday season.

Although toys were supposed to be the holiday's best seller this year, Toys R Us Chairman Charles Lazarus said his firm's sales "were below our aggressive sales plan."

Lazarus said Toys R Us sales were up 17 percent from last Christmas, but that was far short of the 20 percent growth the toy industry had been predicting.

Toys R Us was the first big retailer to disclose its Christmas sales and the disappointing results were interpreted as advance warning that other chains will show similar shortcomings when their figures are released next week.

Wall Street responded to the news by slashing the price of Toys R Us shares by more than 15 percent. The stock was the most actively traded issue and the biggest loser for the day on the New York Stock Exchange, dropping $7.13 to $40.25 by the day's end. More than 2.5 million shares changed hands.

The toy chain's announcement "was a real surprise," said Walter Loeb of Morgan Stanley & Co. Inc. Loeb immediately reduced his estimates for the company's annual earnings from $2.25 per share to $1.95 for this year and dropped his estimate of next year's profits from $3 to $2.50.

The toy industry has been predicting more than a 20 percent increase in sales for the year -- with the bulk of the business coming during the Christmas season. Retailing experts expected the chain to significantly improve on the 30 percent sales increase that it experienced during its third quarter that ended Oct. 31.

But Toys R Us said its business had slowed down rather than picked up as Christmas neared; the results contradicted the first Christmas sales reports on Wednesday, which showed a surge in last-minute Christmas shopping.

"I don't understand the figures -- it is very confusing to say the least," said an official at the Toy Manufacturers of America Inc.

"No one knew this was coming," said Thomas Farley of Salomon Brothers.

The sluggish sales at Toys R Us -- which accounts for about one-fifth of the nation's toy business -- is indicative of the economy in general, added Farley. "Consumer spending in general for Christmas was disappointing," he said.

One of the reasons the results were so surprising, he explained, is that while other retailers has issued warnings of disappointing sales throughout the Christmas season, Toys R Us kept to its standard policy of not commenting on sales until after Christmas.

Most disconcerting to Loeb and other analysts were the comparable store figures that measure the year-to-year sales gains of stores that were open a year ago, disregarding the gains that come from opening more stores. Comparable store sales were up 3 percent for the eight weeks before Christmas, in contrast to a 23.4 percent gain for the 11 months that ended Christmas Eve.

Lazarus blamed much of the sluggish sales on the decline in electronic toys, such as video and computer games. "Electronic products which totaled about 18 percent of our sales during last year's Christmas selling season accounted for about 9 percent of this year's Christmas sales," he said in a letter to shareholders.

On the other hand, sales of traditional toys were up 14.6 percent on a comparable store basis yet below the 23.4 percent increase the chain had experienced for the preceding 11 months.

Additionally, analysts said, although this Christmas was supposed to be a hot item for toys, Toys R Us figures indicate that only a few toys were big sellers, such as Cabbage Patch Dolls, Transformers and GoBots. Michael Jackson products proved disappointing and there was an oversupply of the popular board game Trivial Pursuit, which led to substantial price-cutting -- in turn hurting the chain's sales, noted David Leibowitz of American Securities Corp.

Shortages in the hot items may have also hurt the chain's sales, Leibowitz added. Apparently consumers were unwilling to substitute another toy for the best seller that was not in stock, analysts speculated.

What's more, given the high sales increases experienced by Toys R Us earlier in the year, "consumers probably bought their toys and games earlier," noted Monroe H. Greenstein of Bear Stearns & Co.