If you're the type of Christmas shopper who won't set foot inside the stores until you've first identified the trends and then prepared yourself to follow them, you're in for a high-anxiety season this year. In the kitchenware business, the question of the hour seems to be "What Trends"?

Blanche Sussman, housewares buyer for the China Closet stores, says that at least as of the first week in December Christmas shoppers were lagging seriously behind in their appointed rounds. But Sussman is braced for a final two weeks of mad grabbing, a phenomenon that occurs every couple of years and, along with the relentless fickleness of shoppers', puts the gray hairs on retailers' heads.

"We used to try to predict what was going to be big," says La Cuisine's Nancy Pollard, "but now we just go with the flow." This year, for instance, Pollard and others around town were surprised by an early run on steamed pudding molds, especially the metal kind, apparently precipitated by one luscious cranberry pudding picture in the November issue of Gourmet magazine. However, an entire article on steamed puddings last year, also with luscious pictures, raised hardly a peep.

Still, there remain a few constants. Cuisinart food processors are one. Several stores report brisk sales of the processors, especially the larger models. Woodies says it is selling all sizes about equally, but Williams-Sonoma and China Closet are doing better with the "pro" models. Accessories like blade holders and slicers, shredders and french fry cutters are also popular with China Closet's customers, but no one seems to be selling major attachments like the pasta maker in significant numbers.

Kitchen Bazaar's list of hot items includes one that could be considered "topical" -- Trivial Pursuit mugs that come in Baby Boomer, Silver Screen, Genus or Sports varieties. And if you fail in the bone-crushing quest for a Cabbage Patch doll, try the Cabbage Patch refrigerator magnets at Woodies. While trying to slip in a refrigerator magnet where the recipient is expecting a whole doll is definitely a high-risk business, the store says the magnets are selling like hotcakes.

On a more elevated plane, at least in price, there are the accoutrements to coffeemaking. People seem to be making coffee in droves, but first they want to grind their own beans. Sussman says that China Closet sells a coffee grinder with nearly every coffeemaker. Other stores report similarly brisk sales of grinders, especially the smaller variety that sells for under $20. Prices of coffeemakers are volatile, but mostly in the downward direction, and shoppers are responding accordingly. Williams-Sonoma, Woodies and China Closet all reported imported coffeemakers among their biggest sellers. Most popular seems to be the Krups 10-cup model, but Williams-Sonoma, with its high-end merchandising, is selling the $200 Braun Gaggia espresso makers with ease.

But there are always new Everests to climb. Kitchen Bazaar reports that the brand new Melitta coffee bean roaster, which it is selling for about $60, complete with a pound of "green" beans, has been a hot seller.

Washingtonians may have discretionary dollars to spend on espresso makers and bean roasters, but they are anything but profligate with them. Comparison shop? Sussman says she sees lots of customers armed with complete lists of prices from other stores -- which they do not hesitate to cite when it's time to actually make a purchase. And not just on the big-ticket items, either. They even do it with teakettles, which, incidentally, are always big holiday sellers.

Customers at La Cuisine, which doesn't sell any electric appliances, tableware or joke stuff, tend to have a slightly different shopping profile. For example, La Cuisine's customers have taken in a big way to decorative molds this year. Molds to put the Jell-O in? Not exactly. La Cuisine is selling everything from sheets of tiny plastic molds for chocolate and other candies to a series of truly astonishing tin-lined copper molds in antique patterns. In between are smaller molds for ice cream and chocolates, copper and tinned steel molds for kugelhopf and other cakes, and tiny fluted molds for holiday pastry crusts.

The interest in unique molds is not completely limited to La Cuisine's customers; Williams-Sonoma is stocking a few medium-sized, finely detailed metal chocolate molds this year too, in Christmas designs.