Business executives expect profits to fall during the first quarter of 1989, with retailers in particular less optimistic about sales following the lucrative holiday season, according to a new survey.

Dun & Bradstreet Corp., a leading business-information marketer, said its quarterly poll of 1,500 executives found expectations about the economy were lower for the first three months of the year than the last quarter of 1988 and the same period a year earlier.But Joseph W. Duncan, corporate economist and chief statistician for Dun & Bradstreet, said the current outlook is better than it appears.

"Expectations for first-quarter sales are down only slightly, and we are coming off a four-year high in terms of expectations for higher profits," Duncan said.

"Our fourth-quarter survey . . . indicated that retailers were looking ahead to a strong holiday sales period, so the current results suggest they expect consumers to take a breather after the Christmas selling season."

Duncan added that among manufacturers, sales expectations remained at historically high levels as companies continue to benefit from opportunities in export markets.