January retail sales were the worst in nearly four decades, adding further tension to a stumbling economy, according to Nordstrom Inc.

For the fiscal quarter ended Feb. 2, the specialty department-store retailer's same-store sales fell 0.7 percent, meeting the average estimate of analysts surveyed by Thomson Financial.

The group said that chain stores' total same-store sales edged up slightly at just 0.3 percent last month, worse than expectations for a 1 percent rise.

Nordstrom posted total January sales of $486.3 million, versus $610.1 million in the year-ago period, which included an additional week.

Fourth-quarter sales were $2.51 billion, down from $2.63 billion during the fourth quarter of fiscal 2006. According to Thomson, analysts expected sales of $2.58 billion.

Chris Holloway, Nordstrom's investor relations representative, called the results in line with expectations in a pre-recorded message.

Clearly, this is a reflection of a very difficult environment for the consumer, said Ken Perkins, president of RetailMetrics LLC, a research company in Swampscott, Mass in notes. It looks like consumer spending is stalling.

The nation's largest retailer, Wal-Mart reported a dismal 0.5 percent increase in January same-store sales, or sales at stores open at least a year, when excluding fuel sales.

Excluding Wal-Mart, Thomson's data showed that average January same-store sales were up 0.2 percent, compared with expectations for a 0.1 percent rise.

In January, the company forecast same-store sales growth of about 2 percent. Wal-Mart stores chain recorded an weaker 0.2 percent growth in same-store sales, while the Sam's Club warehouse chain reported a 2.1 percent rise.

Gift card redemptions were below expectations, and customers appear to be holding gift cards longer and using them more often for food and consumables rather than discretionary purchases, Wal-Mart said in a statement.

Wal-Mart rose $1.01 or 2.07 percent to $49.84 a share.