Retail sales fell 0.9 percent in January, pulled down in large part by the second straight monthly decline in automobile sales, the government said Wednesday.

The Commerce Department said sales totaled a seasonally adjusted $148.2 billion, down from $149.6 billion in December, when sales dropped 1.5 percent - even worse than the 0.4 percent first reported last month. Sales were unchanged in November.January traditionally is the slowest month of the year for retailers as consumers take a break after running up bills during the Christmas shopping season.

But analysts said January purchases were even slower this year because of the recession and the outbreak of war on Jan. 17.

Indeed, January sales were down 1.4 percent from purchases during the same month of 1990.

It was the government's first report on consumer activity in 1991. Retail sales, which grew an anemic 3.8 percent last year, represent about half of total consumer spending. Consumer spending, in turn, accounts for two-thirds of the nation's economic activity.

Auto sales fell 4.4 percent after an identical 4.4 percent decline in December. The figure was revised downward from the 1.4 percent estimated drop first reported.

Excluding the auto category, retail sales were unchanged.

Overall, sales of durable goods - items like cars that are expected to last more than three years - declined 2.8 percent after falling 3.4 percent in December.

All categories posted decreases.