Undated (AP) _ An early Easter, cold weather and the continuing slump in consumer spending took a heavy toll on sales in April, the nation's largest general retailers reported today.

''We were expecting soft sales because of the change in the calendar,'' said Jeffrey B. Edelman, a retail industry analyst with the investment firm Drexel Burnham Lambert Inc. ''In spite of that, the results were below expectations.''

With Easter arriving earlier this year, consumers did their spring shopping in March. That siphoned off sales from April and created a negative comparison with the retailers' April 1987 performance.

Apparel sales, which have been sluggish since fall, continued to slip. Edelman attributed some of the dismal April results to cooler-than-usual weather, but fashion retailers are not expected to emerge from their slump until the summer at the earliest.

Limited Inc., which operates nearly 3,200 apparel stores nationwide, said its overall sales fell 8 percent last month when compared with April 1987 levels, and rose 1 percent for the first three months of the fiscal year. Sales from stores open at least a year - known as same-store sales in the industry - were down 16 percent in April and 7 percent so far this year.

The calendar and the weather aside, retail sales fell because of consumers' continued caution, analysts said.

''We expect retail sales to show only modest increases over the near term,'' said Jeffrey Feiner, an analyst with Merrill Lynch & Co.

High debt levels and economic uncertainty are contributing to consumers' hesitance, Feiner said.

Retail sales are an important economic indicator because consumer spending accounts for two-thirds of the gross national product.

Sears, Roebuck and Co., the nation's largest retailer, said its overall sales rose 4.8 percent last month and 3 percent for the first 13 weeks of the year. Same-store sales were up 2 percent in April and 1.4 percent for the year so far.

K mart Corp. said its overall sales rose 2.5 percent last month and 4.4 percent for the year to date. Its same-store sales fell 0.6 percent in April and rose 1.5 percent for the first 13 weeks.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. said its overall sales climbed 32 percent in April and 33 percent for the first three months. The rapidly expanding chain said its same-store sales rose 12 percent last month and 13 percent for the year so far.

Dayton Hudson Corp. said its overall sales rose 7.9 percent last month and 18.2 percent for the first 13 weeks. Same-store sales declined 6.9 percent in April and rose 1.4 percent year-to-date.

Feiner predicted that overall, retailers' first-quarter earnings would be flat to lower when compared with the first three months of 1987.

The sales reported today were from general and apparel retailers and do not reflect sales of auto dealers or supermarkets.

Sears said its sales for the four weeks ended April 30 totaled $2.29 billion, up from $2.18 billion. For the year so far, sales totaled $6.85 billion, up from $6.65 billion.

K mart reported sales for the four weeks ended April 27 of $2 billion, up from $1.96 billion. Its year-to-date sales totaled $5.84 billion, up from $5.59 billion.

Wal-Mart reported sales for the month of April of $1.58 billion, up from $1.2 billion. So far this year, its sales totaled $4.28 billion, compared with $3.21 billion.

Dayton Hudson said its sales for the four weeks ended April 30 totaled $761.1 million, up from $705.6 million. For the first 13 weeks, its sales rose to $2.48 billion from $2.10 billion.