Dragged down by sinking sales of goods ranging from clothes to furniture to groceries, U.S. retail sales grew by only 0.1 percent in October, the Commerce Department said yesterday.

National retail sales would have declined had it not been for higher gasoline prices caused by the crisis in the Persian Gulf. Without the extra pennies at the pump, retail sales declined 0.1 percent last month, after a 0.9 percent rise in September, a Commerce Department official said.

"It stinks, pure and simple, and proves that the public is in a mood to conserve money rather than spend," said Kurt Barnard, publisher of Barnard's Retail Marketing Report in New York. "But it's no surprise coming after last week's results from major retailers."

Last Thursday, major national merchants reported modest single-digit increases in same-store sales, though some, including J.C. Penney, May Department Stores and the Limited, reported decreases. Same-store sales include sales of stores open a year or more and are considered the best barometer of retail performance.

Though retail sales of $152.3 billion in October 1990 declined from September, they actually rose 4.9 percent over October of last year.

More specific Commerce department figures for October 1990 show certain categories of goods managing respectable gains, even as others decline. For example, sales of durable goods climbed 0.7 percent, while sales of nondurable goods dropped 0.2 percent.

Sales were up 3.2 percent at gasoline service stations in October because of higher gas prices. Other sales increases included gains of 1.6 percent at drugstores, 1.5 percent at hardware and building supply stores, and 0.7 percent at automobile dealerships.

But sales declined 1 percent at clothing stores, 0.6 percent at department stores, 0.5 percent at food stores and 0.3 percent at both restaurants and furniture stores.

To add to the joyless economic news, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce yesterday predicted a deeper recession than it initially had forecast, estimating that a recession will last through the first half of 1991 and will push the unemployment rate above 7 percent by the end of next year. The October unemployment rate was 5.7 percent.

Meanwhile, the nation's Big Three automakers reported yesterday that early November sales of North American-built vehicles crawled upward by only 0.8 percent from last year, when sales figures were already low.

General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler Corp. blamed the slow growth of sales on lower consumer confidence levels and higher gas prices. So far this year, sales of Big Three cars and trucks were 7.1 percent behind last year, with car sales dropping 8.9 percent and truck sales falling 4.1 percent.

Many see the sluggish figures as evidence that consumers have cut back spending as worries build about the economy and the crisis in the Middle East. Retail sales account for about half of all consumer spending, which accounts for about two-thirds of the nation's economic activity.

"Certainly right now the consumer is turned off, and things have been difficult over the past few months," said Robert B. Gill, vice chairman of J.C. Penney of Dallas. "But we think they will ultimately return to the shopping habit sooner than later."

"We have lost our growth momentum, but we think we are still going to have a reasonable Christmas," said Alain Chetrit, owner of a local string of apparel stores, including Hugo Boss. "We want the customer to put their fears behind them."

Consumers may be doing that, some say. "Sales in Washington have been very flat, but a lot of our clients were reporting things picking up this week," said Casey Willson, president of the McLean-based Willson Co., a retail consulting group. "Hopefully for them, it will indicate a pent-up demand out there and things {will} loosen up through the holidays."

But many retailers here and nationwide are not so optimistic, according to a new report from Deloitte-Touche, the accounting and consulting firm. The national portion of the survey released yesterday showed that more than 80 percent of the nation's retailers believe the U.S. economy is now in a recession and 70 percent expect consumers to spend less this year than last.

The local version of the survey, a confidential report set to be mailed out Friday to area retailers, shows that retailers here think the Washington area has been in a recession for months and they are dealing with it by cutting inventory, slashing prices and planning for decreased profits.