Amid predictions of an economic slowdown, higher import prices and increasinly conservative consumer tastes, retailers are facing 1988 with trepidation and uncertainty.

R.H. Macy & Co. Chairman Edward S. Finkelstein may have expressed these concerns the most succinctly earlier this month when he addressed thousands of retailers attending the annual convention of the National Retail Merchants Association in New York.

"If there's anyone here without any thoughts or anxieties about the economic future, you're the only one," he told the retailers.

The reasons for the doubts are clear: While none of the economic predictions is particularly cheery, there are so many conflicting opinions of what will happen this year that few retailers are confident in their buying plans. If they buy too much, they fear, they will be left with merchandise that they will have to push out their doors by taking huge discounts. On the other hand, if they buy too little, they stand to miss sales and lose customers.

What's more, although the confusion over fashion trends that began last year with short skirts is expected to abate somewhat this spring as consumers begin to accept the new styles, there still are questions about the future fashion taste of the American shopper.

"We are at a turning point," said Kurt Barnard, publisher of the Barnard Retail Marketing Report. "Retailers are beginning to face now an issue they will have to contend with over the next three to four years: There is a different kind of consumer out there. They are dealing with consumers who by virtue of demographics tend to be a lot more conservative and less content to be flashy to the outside world."

The reason is simple: The population is aging and the baby boom generation is increasingly content to be homebodies.

"The Pepsi generation is dead," said futurist Joseph F. Coates, president of J.F. Coates Inc. "In its place are crinkles -- crinkles around the mouth, nose and mouth. ... Chic propaganda and health advocacy aside, {the 25- to 40-year-olds} are overweight, urban and sedentary."

But nowhere is confusion greater than in the economic forecasts. Thomas Swanstrom, chief economist of Sears, Roebuck & Co., has one of the most optimistc views. "We see 1988 as being a fairly good year for the general merchandise industry," he said. "Consumers will not pull back because of the stock market crash or high debt." Predicting a rise in disposable income -- thanks to tax rebates and the 1988 tax cut, Swanstrom expects sales to rise 5.8 percent this year, up from the 5.2 percent increase in 1987.

However, Swanstrom admits, because of inflation the real sales gain will be at most 2.3 percent above last year.

On the other hand, Lawrence Chimerine, chief economist of the WEFA Group, is far less optimistic. "The consumer spending boom we had in mid-1980s is over, pure and simple," he said. "If we are lucky we'll see consumer spending grow, in real terms, 1-2 percent a year, tops."

The confusion in economic forecasts is having a clear impact on retailers. A survey at the NRMA convention of 466 retailers revealed that 72 percent of the respondents were confident the U.S. economy would not worsen this year. Nonetheless, half of the retailers surveyed said they were planning to reduce operating costs.

As conflicting as the economic predictions are, so too are the directions retailers are taking. On the one hand, some retailers such as K mart Corp. and Wal-Mart Stores Inc. are opening very large "hypermarkets" that combine groceries with the general merchandise normally found in those chains' stores.

On the other hand, Sears, Penneys, Macy's and other retailers have entered the specialty store business, opening small shops catering to a very narrow group of customers.

"In the 1990s, we will see a greater polarization" between the small fashion shops and the general merchandise stores, said Walter F. Loeb, financial analyst with Morgan Stanley & Co. And for the general merchandise stores, food will become an all important commodity. The sale of food in their stores will help merchants "stabilize their margins and enable greater repeat business," Loeb said.

Amid the conflicting signs for the future, retailing executives are clear about one thing: Mergers and acquisitions of retailers will continue despite the October stock market collapse.

"The takeover business will continue," predicted Peter J. Solomon, vice chairman of Shearson Lehman Bros. Inc. "There will be a number of hostile takeovers, and they will be largely foreign driven."

The falling dollar will make it easier for foreigners to buy U.S. companies, Solomon said. Additionally, with the success of such foreign chains as Bennetton and Laura Ashley, "foreign companies are beginning to feel more at home in the U.S.," Solomon said.