If you have eyes, ears or a mailbox, it's nearly impossible to avoid the blizzard of promotions that have been inundating shoppers and trumpeting a wide array of holiday sales -- Cold Snap, Red Carnation, Gold Dot, Three-Hour and Midnight Madness, to name only a few.

Many consumers find themselves wondering whether to put off Christmas shopping a bit longer and wait for better bargains. The answer depends on which matters more to those shoppers: price or selection.

"You face a trade-off the longer you wait," said Carl Steidtman, chief economist for Management Horizons, a retail consulting division of Price Waterhouse. "You can hope for a better bargain that might come or get just what you want now before leaner-than-usual inventories are depleted."

Many retailers, wary of being stuck with merchandise after Christmas, started out the Christmas season with 5 percent to 15 percent less merchandise on their shelves. The hope was that they could get through the season without having to resort to hefty discounts to clear their shelves. But for some merchants it hasn't worked out as planned.

Last week, the nation's largest retailer, Sears, Roebuck & Co., announced its "biggest pre-Christmas sale ever," in response to sluggish retail activity in its stores.

Also last week, both Toys R Us Inc. and financially strapped Child World Inc., the nation's two largest toy-store chains -- representing more than 40 percent of the market -- initiated huge discounts of up to 75 percent to jump-start reticent consumers. These price cuts from powerhouse retailers might prompt others to follow, retail experts said. Or they might not.

David J. Rachman, professor of marketing and retailing at Baruch College in New York City, pointed out recently that many of the discounts now showing up in circulars and newspaper ads had been planned well in advance by retailers who foresaw a bad Christmas early on and prepared accordingly. And with average prices starting out the season 6 percent higher this year than last, Rachman said, those discounts have been easier to make.

Tom Saquella, president of the Annapolis-based Maryland Retail Merchants Association, agrees. "Most retailers I talk to are pleased with their low inventories and plan to react to their own sales rather than each other," he said.

Stores locally seem to support that on-course strategy, hoping to avoid the price wars of last Christmas.

Officials at the Hecht Co. said they will not change their holiday promotional plans -- in place since summer -- in response to the Sears markdown or anything else.

"The time for the consumer to buy is right now," said Hecht Chairman J. Warren Harris. "Everything is priced aggressively."

Nordstrom Inc. has not had any holiday sales and doesn't plan any, following the Seattle-based department store's operating procedure of only a few planned sales a year, said John Whitacre, Nordstrom regional manager.

"It's not a party we want to join, because our {profit} margins are already razor-thin," said Ross Richardson of catalogue showroom chain Best Products Co. in Richmond.

J.C. Penney Co. already has been cutting heavily by 20 percent to 40 percent, said spokesman J. Duncan Muir, but not nationally like Sears. "We discount depending on the market and its performance," said Muir.

Washington, traditionally one of Penney's strongest markets, has been one of the weakest recently, and Muir said District shoppers have been beneficiaries of that in the form of price cuts already in effect.

Sears said its aggressive strategy, prompted by dull sales, was necessary. "We had a plan in place, but with the slow consumer spending and the warm weather, we had to move the calendar up, so we are having after-Christmas sales now," said Sears spokesman Gordon Jones, who noted that sales were stronger over the weekend following the price cuts.

Child World, in desperate need of cash, started the discount toy battle with Toys R Us when the 182-store chain said last week that is was discounting up to 50 percent on more than $100 million of its $525 million stock of toys, dolls and games. "This is the year Santa Claus came early," said Child World President Peter Hayes.