Retail sales declined 0.1 percent last month, the government said yesterday in a report analysts said pointed to a bleak holiday shopping season.

"I'm looking for a gloomy Christmas," said economist David Jones of Aubrey G. Lanston & Co., a New York securities dealer. "The consumer has become extremely selective, buying practical gifts such as clothing, and waiting for a bargain even on those."

The report "implies that consumers are being very cautious," agreed Sung Won Sohn, an economist with Norwest Corp. in Minneapolis. "People are not buying postponable goods."

Sales totaled a seasonally adjusted $151.6 billion, down from $151.8 billion in October and the first decline since a 0.1 percent drop in May, the Commerce Department reported.

Economist Rosalind Wells of the National Retail Federation in New York said she has not seen much reason to expect the Christmas shopping pace to pick up soon.

Analysts said retail activity would have been even more sluggish except for widespread promotions and other incentives to lure shoppers. While markdowns might prop up sales in one month, they tend to depress them in following months.

"They're borrowing sales from the future," Sohn said.

Sales of durable goods fell 1.4 percent after rising 0.6 percent in October.

Automobile sales plummeted 1.3 percent, reversing a 1.4 percent October increase that some analysts said had come largely from fleet sales.

Excluding automobiles, sales inched up 0.2 percent last month.

Although purchases of nondurable goods increased 0.5 percent, general merchandise and department store sales dropped 0.5 percent.