As anyone who follows the retail industry can tell you, consumers just aren't spending the way they used to. Sales at many of the nation's biggest retailers have been slow for almost two years now.

The retailers have learned to adjust, shifting the focus of their business from generating sales to maintaining profits. And the investment analysts who track retail companies are stressing cost controls rather than revenue.So, everything is OK, right? Maybe we don't need to worry about how many refrigerators Sears sold last month or how the white sale went at Lord & Taylor.

Wrong, the economists say.

The retailers may have figured out how to survive the slump, but the economy - and the rest of us - are likely to suffer in the end if consumers continue to hold tightly to their purse strings.

"Any kind of slowdown (in consumer spending) will show up in lower production and unemployment," warns David Wyss, chief financial economist for Data Resources Inc., a Lexington, Mass., firm that forecasts economic trends.

Consumer spending accounts for about two-thirds of the gross national product, the broadest measure of the economy's health. If consumers make fewer purchases, they could force the economy to slow down or even slip into a recession.

So far, the slowdown in retail spending has not been readily apparent in the GNP figures. The Commerce Department said overall consumer spending increased by 3.5 percent from July through September, following a 3 percent rise in the second quarter, although at the same time, many big retailers reported their sales couldn't keep up with inflation.

What's happening is that Americans are spending more on other things: cars and the gasoline to drive them, interest payments on mortgages and other loans, medical care and their children's tuition.

But, the economists note, as Americans pay more for necessities and services, they are shying away from what's known as discretionary spending.

Therein lies the problem - a drop in such spending means consumers aren't buying as many discretionary goods, so companies don't have to produce as much.

And if manufacturers slow their assembly lines, they're likely to lay off workers.

What could save some of those jobs is continued growth in exports. But, as Wyss noted, exports are not a panacea for the entire U.S. manufacturing sector. The United States doesn't sell many refrigerators overseas, so if the domestic market declines, some workers may be on the street.