Retail sales fell by 0.4 percent in September after a strong summer, the government said yesterday, and economists said the weakness was likely to continue as debt-laden consumers cut back spending.

The Commerce Department said retail establishments sold $128.8 billion worth of goods last month, down $500 million from August after adjusting for seasonal variation.

The decline was led by weakness in auto sales, which fell 1.4 percent in September after a 5.7 percent increase in August.

Analysts had expected the drop as car dealers phased out their end-of-model-year incentive programs. But retail sales, excluding autos, also edged down, 0.1 percent following a 0.6 percent increase in August.

"I think that the strength in {July and August} was essentially in the auto sector, and now that that is over, I think the consumer sector of the economy is going to settle into a sluggish pattern at best," said Undersecretary of Commerce Robert Ortner.

It was the first monthly drop in overall retail sales since May, when sales dipped 0.1 percent, and the biggest drop since January, when sales fell 7.1 percent. Sales had risen 1.7 percent in August following increases of 0.6 percent in July and 1.2 percent in June.

Michael K. Evans, who heads an economic consulting firm in Washington, called the September report "a harbinger of what's ahead."

"You could be looking at a recession next year ... if interest rates keep going up the way they have been. It's not here yet, but it looks more likely every week," he said.

Sales of durable goods, big-ticket items expected to last three years or more, fell 0.9 percent in September.

Sales were up 0.6 percent at clothing stores, following a 0.2 percent decline in August. Sales were up 0.7 percent at gasoline stations, up 1.1 percent at restaurants and bars and up 1.2 percent at drugstores.

"On services and nondurables, consumers continue to spend nicely," said Allen Sinai, chief economist at Shearson Lehman Bros., a New York brokerage. Because both husband and wife work outside the home in a growing number of families, spending on "clothing, food, travel, eating out will likely continue to be strong," he said