With consumers nervous and spending cautiously in the wake of the stock market collapse, the nation's major retailers yesterday reported disappointing sales gains in November.

The results underscore a Washington Post-ABC News Poll taken this week showing that 53 percent of Americans think the economy is getting worse -- the highest level recorded by a Post-ABC News survey in five years.

Locally and nationally, retail sales in general were below expectations, continuing the sluggish sales trend that has been evident since earlier this year.

"The numbers are not good," said Stacy Ruchlamer, a retailing analyst at Shearson Lehman Bros. "Sales have been lackluster and a little bit below expectations."

Sales were particularly poor during the first part of November. But even after Thanksgiving, when Christmas shopping began in earnest, "the improvement we saw was not enough to bring the numbers back up or even let retailers meet their expectations," Ruchlamer said.

In the Washington area, overall sales have not yet returned to normal since the snowstorm on Veteran's Day -- taking the edge off the usual Christmas shopping rush, according to local retailing officials.

"The rush of Christmas shopping that generally follows Veteran's Day has been slow in developing," said Garry Curtis, manager of the Greater Washington Board of Trade's retail bureau.

Some retailers, however, said they had posted large gains since last Friday. "Our business is very strong and running well above plan," said Irwin Zazulia, president of The Hecht Co.

From the nation's largest retailer, Sears, Roebuck & Co., which posted only a 0.7 percent increase in sales over the year earlier, to the fast-growing Wal-Mart Stores Inc., which recorded a 26 percent increase, sales nationally were below expectations. In the case of Wal-Mart, the 26 percent gain was one of the smallest increases recently posted by the discount chain.

Underlying the sluggish sales is a growing pessimism about the economy. The Post-ABC News Poll found that half of those interviewed around the nation believe that the United States is heading for an economic downturn as a result of declining stock prices. That is much greater than the pessimism recorded the evening of Black Monday, Oct. 19 -- immediately after the Dow Jones industrial average plummeted 508 points -- when only 37 percent said the stock fall would lead to an economic downturn.

The latest poll, taken Monday through Wednesday, found six in 10 of those questioned believe that things are "pretty seriously off on the wrong track" instead of "going in the right direction." This downbeat view is as negative as the one expressed last spring, and surpassed other soundings dating back to the 1982 recession.

Additionally, 53 percent of those surveyed said the economy is getting worse. In a survey taken shortly before the stock market crash in October, 47 percent said the economy was getting worse. As recently as last June, only 38 percent perceived a worsening economy.

The lack of consumer confidence that was revealed in the Washington Post-ABC News poll underlines the belief of many retailing industry officials and analysts that sales will continue to be disappointing even through Christmas. "There will be modest increases, stimulated by large promotions," said Walter F. Loeb, a financial analyst with Morgan Stanley & Co.

"The only thing you can say with certainty is that the level of promotions will continue and will be very aggressive," Ruchlamer said.

"We are seeing the continuation of consumer conservatism that began earlier this year," said retailing expert Kurt Barnard, who publishes a monthly newsletter. The reason is simple, he said. "Discretionary buying power has not increased to a significant extent at all, but prices have gone up sharply. In the all-important apparel sector, prices have skyrocketed, with the median increases ranging from 10 to 15 percent."

Apparel retailers appeared to be hit hardest last month, with The Limited Inc. -- one of the nation's largest and most aggressive women's apparel chains -- reporting a scant 2 percent increase during November. For Limited-owned stores that have been open for more than a year, sales dropped by 5 percent last month from levels reported a year earlier.

The Washington Post-ABC News Poll showed that the fears of the effect of stock market woes rose sharply among women, leading to a more pronounced gender gap in the latest survey. Women said the nation was headed for a downturn by 56 to 39 percent. The figures were virtually reversed for men, with a 55-to-41 percent majority taking the opposite view.

The poll was based on 1,007 telephone interviews of randomly selected adults 18 years of age or older in the continental United States. The margin of sampling error was plus or minus 3 percentage points.