Sales at the nation's big specialty retailers and department stores were soft in November, showing a cautious start to the holiday shopping season.

The November results were "not very pretty," said David Kelly, a consumer specialist at Data Resources Inc. in Lexington, Mass. He noted that three of the five biggest retailers -- J.C. Penney Co., K mart Corp. and Sears, Roebuck & Co. -- showed declines for the month.

Sales rose at the two others, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Dayton Hudson Corp.

Analysts said they had expected the weakness in sales, especially after recent reports of declines in consumer confidence.

But that drop in consumer confidence also led many stores to trim inventories, and although their sales were weak, some of the biggest retailers had stronger sales than expected.

An extra shopping day between Thanksgiving and the end of the month helped give a boost to the monthly sales reports released yesterday when compared with last year's data, analysts said.

This year's earlier Thanksgiving also gave consumers five weekends to shop before Christmas and may have prompted them to defer most of their shopping until December, Kelly said.

Sears reported its November comparable-store sales were down 2.4 percent, better than most analysts' forecasts for a 3.0 percent to 4.0 percent drop.

Sears has been suffering all year from its heavy concentration on such durable products as furniture and appliances, analysts said.

Rick Nelson, retail analyst at Duff and Phelps Inc. in Chicago, said durable items move slowly when the economy is sluggish and had dragged down Sears's profitability compared with stores that stock mostly smaller-ticket items.

Specialty retailers, such as the Gap Inc., continued to post year-over-year sales increases, but the rate of growth slowed, the analysts said. The Gap said its November sales rose 6.0 percent, while the Limited's sales were up 4.0 percent. Joppa, Md.-based Merry-Go-Round Enterprises Inc., which has showed sales strength all year, reported same-store sales rose about 11 percent for the month.

The nation's big discounters also experienced some softness in November. Wal-Mart, which has averaged sales growth of 10.0 percent per month, had a sales increase of 7.0 percent last month, said Catherine Cooper, an analyst at Kemper Financial Services in Chicago.

"If you look at {sales at} Sears, Wal-Mart, K mart, it tells you where people are," Cooper said. "Consumer confidence is down, and sales look pretty sluggish."

Cooper and other analysts agreed that shoppers appeared to be deferring purchases because of the economic slowdown. But most retailers have not responded with aggressive sales and promotions because the slowdown was anticipated, and many ordered much less merchandise for the holiday period this year.

"I don't see the country any more on sale than it was last year," Cooper said.

Kelly said many consumers were waiting for the retailers to put up sales signs before buying for Christmas. Shoppers have read reports that retailers are suffering and are delaying purchases rather than eliminating them, he said"

Other analysts agreed and said they expected store sales to remain behind year-ago levels in the first weeks of December, but to pick up in the final weeks of the Christmas shopping season.