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Retail sales eased 0.1 percent in November, the Commerce Department said today, as consumers pinched spending at the start of the key Christmas selling season.

The decline was the first drop in monthly sales since May, and it was notable since the holiday shopping season usually takes off during the last weeks of November.

"While the market was expecting a weaker number, this report is hardly good news," said economist Charles Lieberman of Manufacturers Hanover Corp.

Economists, surveying the weak economy, had expected a 0.6 percent drop in sales. But they found little solace in the fact that sales turned down after a revised 0.2 percent rise in October.

Lieberman said he expects the Federal Reserve to lower interest rates again after the meeting of its policy-setting Federal Open Market Committee scheduled for Monday.

Much of the weakness was in autos, where consumers have been cautious about making large purchases. But even without the weak autos sector, sales rose an anemic 0.2 percent in November.

General merchandise store sales, which usually get a strong boost from Christmas shoppers, fell by 0.4 percent from October.

The overall decline last month left retail sales at a seasonally adjusted $151.6 billion.

Auto dealer sales fell by 1.3 percent in November after a 1.4 percent increase in October. Large carmakers, including General Motors Corp., have announced sharp production cutbacks because of falling sales.

Gasoline dealer sales rose 0.7 percent last month after rises of 2.6 percent in October and 5.6 percent in September, showing that the gasoline price rises are moderating.

Sluggish spending by consumers, who buy about two-thirds of all goods and services produced in the economy, was hardly a surprise. Worries have been rising steadily about unemployment and the possibility of war in the Middle East.

The Labor Department said last Friday that 267,000 jobs were lost in November and 178,000 were shed in October, removing doubts that the economy was in recession.

A recession is usually defined as six months of shrinking economic output, a condition the United States has not experienced since 1981-82.

In other sectors, clothing store sales rose 0.8 percent in November after a 0.3 percent October fall.

Food store sales gained 0.5 percent after a 0.1 percent decrease in October, while drug store sales rose 0.2 percent last month after rising 0.5 percent in October.

Furniture store sales increased 0.3 percent in November after a 0.5 percent drop in October.

Sales of durable goods, items meant to last three or more years, fell 1.4 percent in November after increasing 0.6 percent in October. Sales of non-durable goods, such as food and disposable items, gained 0.5 percent in November after being flat in October.

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