Virginia retailers equaled or outdistanced the sales performance of the rest of the nation's retail stores during 1979, "a reflection of the continuing comparatively stable nature of the Virginia economy," according to a recent survey by the University of Virginia's Tayloe Murphy Institute.

The Virginia increase of 11.9 percent matched the figure recorded by the Bureau of the Census for the entire United States.

Meanwhile, sales increases in taxable items and in general merchandise or department store sales (GAF sales) were well below the annual inflation rate of 11.3 percent, according to the report, "Retail Sales in Virginia."

Taxable sales, consisting of all taxable items and services, were $17.8 billion in 1979, an increase of 7 percent from the previous year, with Northern Virginia leading the way. GAF sales, which are included in taxable sales figures, totaled $5.5 billion, up 4 percent from 1978, according to data from the Virginia Department of Taxation.

"People either bought fewer items than they did the year before, and/or they bought slightly lower quality goods," said Eleanor G. May, research director for the Business Studies Center of the Tayloe Murphy Institute.

Virginians spent an average of $1,070 on general merchandise last year and an average of $3,450 on all taxable items, which includes food, drugstore items, lumber, building materials, heating fuel, machinery and equipment and hotel and motel expenditures. The per capita income in Virginia in 1979 was $7,720 according to the institute.

Northern Virginia topped all eight Virginia Standard Metropolitan Statistical Areas with taxable sales of about $4.2 billion or 23.5 percent of the state's total. Taxable sales in the other SMSAs and their percentage of the total were: Richmond, $2.7 billion or 15.2 percent; Norfolk-Virginia Beach-Portsmouth, $2.5 billion or 14.2 percent; Newport News-Hampton, $1.2 billion or 6.8 percent; Roanoke, $1 billion or 5.7 percent; Lynchburg, $548 million or 3.1 percent; Petersburg-Colonial Heights-Hopewell, $378 million or 2.1 percent; and the Virginia portion of Bristol, $267 million or 1.5 percent.

In Northern Virginia, Fairfax County led all others in taxable sales with $2.06 billion. Arlington County was a distant second second with $604 million and the city of Alexandria was third with $498 million in sales.

Residents of Roanoke spent the most ($4,640 per capita) on taxable items, followed by Richmond with $4,420 and Northern Virginia with $4,020. Northern Virginia had the highest per capita general merchandise sales in 1979 with $1,450.

General merchandise sales in some of Virginia's rural counties were lower in 1979 than in 1971, indicating that consumers are doing their department-store shopping in nearby urban or suburban areas, the report noted.

The report shows that between 1971 and 1979 total taxable sales in the state rose 124 percent with Chesterfield County showing the greatest increase (519 percent.) Virginia Beach sales during that period were up 205 percent, the largest increase of any city in the state.