Retailers who were looking for the holiday shopping season to bring some respite will be disappointed, going by one early indicator.

Total retail sales this holiday season, taking into account the period November 1 through December 24, are down in the range of 5.5% to 8% compared with last year, according to a report put out by a MasterCard subsidiary.

The report is based on sales activity in MasterCard’s payments network, combined with estimates for other payment types, including cash and check payments.

“A difficult economic environment combined with unfavorable weather during the last week of shopping made 2008 one of the most challenging holiday shopping seasons in decades,” according to Michael McNamara, vice president of research and analysis with SpendingPulse, an information service of MasterCard Advisors.

Excluding gasoline sales, total sales were down only 2% to 4% this year. Sales of gasoline, down 40% compared with last year, were a major drag on the overall retail performance.

However, at least one observer believes that it could have been worse. The 2% to 4% downturn in sales, after excluding gasoline sales, is not as bad as it might have been, according to Brett Wilkerson, CEO of Boston-based Property & Portfolio Research.

“It feels like the consumer could have and should have retrenched a bit more. If you look at the long-term ratio of personal consumption to disposable personal income, we’ve been running about 5% ahead. So just to get back to the long-term average of spending, consumers need to cut by 5%. It is not as bad as it could have been.”

Other sectors that dragged down total retail performance include electronics, down more than 26%, and luxury items, with a higher than 34% decline.

Sales in the apparel sector, another major sector, were also down 19% to 21% compared with the same period of last year. Sales of women’s apparel declined as much as 23%. Sales of men’s apparel held up better, with a decline of only 14.3%. And footwear sales were down a more manageable 13.5%.

As for the better performers, according to MasterCard, one sector that performed well compared to others is online retail sales. Consumers cut down on their online purchases a mere 2.3% compared with last year’s holiday season. Poor weather in the last two weeks before Christmas probably helped in the strong showing of the e-commerce sector this year, according to the research unit, considering that it made it more uncomfortable for customers to go to retail store locations.

Another area of relative strength noted by SpendingPulse is in the food sector; sales at groceries, general merchandise stores, and some parts of the restaurant industry, helped contain the overall sales decline to the single-digit level.

Even then, PPR is not optimistic about the outlook for the retail sector. The firm’s forecast calls for nationwide vacancies in the sector to rise to 17.5% by the end of 2009 from 13.5% at the end of the third quarter. PPR projects rents in the sector to decline 5.5% in 2009, after dropping off 3.5% in 2008.

Wilkerson also says that retail property values will be hit harder than values in any of the other major property sectors. For 2008, he expects retail properties to decline 11% in value. And for 2009, PPR anticipates that the sector will see property values go down another 10%.