NEW YORK - Worries about the holiday season increased yesterday as many national retailers - with the notable exception of Wal-Mart - reported November sales that were the industry's worst for any month since at least 1969.

The malaise cut across all sectors as shoppers, worried about layoffs and shrinking retirement funds, focused only on necessities.

"It's an awful beginning to the holiday season," said Michael P. Niemira, chief economist at the International Council of Shopping Centers. "This is going to be a difficult holiday season for most retailers."

He predicted the retrenchment in consumer spending would linger for at least six months. Indeed, based on conversations with stores, this week's sales at the start of December have been slower than expected, said Janet Hoffman, managing partner of the North American retail practice of Accenture Ltd. With five fewer days between Thanksgiving and Christmas this year, retailers are under more pressure to make every day count.

"If retailers are not superaggressive with discounts, stores will be retail museums," said C. Britt Beemer, chairman of America's Research Group, of Charleston, S.C.

Worries about the economy have helped Wal-Mart Stores Inc., which reported a 3.4 percent gain in same-store sales, surpassing the 2.1 percent increase that analysts surveyed by Thomson Reuters expected.

Wal-Mart said business was starting to benefit from falling gasoline prices.

Same-store sales are those at stores open at least a year and are considered a key indicator of a retailer's health.

However, Costco Wholesale Corp., usually a strong performer, reported a bigger-than-expected 5 percent drop in same-store sales. Target Corp., which has been stumbling as its merchandise focuses more on nonessentials such as trendy clothes, reported a 10.4 percent drop.

Most mall-based chains and department stores fared even worse, with Abercrombie & Fitch Co., Nordstrom Inc., and Kohl's Corp. reporting percentage declines exceeding 15 percent.

In Philadelphia, maternity-apparel chain Mothers Work Inc. said November same-store sales rose 0.6 percent. That was helped by a calendar shift of more Fridays during the month compared with last year.

Drugstore operator Rite Aid Corp., of Camp Hill, Pa., said traditional holiday sales were not as strong as they were last year because of a later Thanksgiving, while sales of recently introduced generic drugs hurt its pharmacy sales. Same-store sales were flat compared with the same period in 2007.

The Bon-Ton Stores Inc., of York, Pa., said comparable-store sales for the four weeks ended Nov. 29 were down 16.0 percent compared with the year-ago period. It also cited the calendar shift.

Privately held Burlington Coat Factory Warehouse Corp. said second-quarter comparative-store sales decreased 2.1 percent.