Worries about jobs and the overall economy flared in September, driving a key barometer of consumer sentiment to its lowest level in nearly two years, a private research group said Tuesday.

The New York-based Conference Board said its Consumer Confidence Index fell to 99.8, an almost 6-point drop from the revised 105.6 in August. The reading was below the 104.5 that analysts had expected.

It marked its lowest level since a 98.3 reading in November 2005, when gas and oil prices soared after hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated the Gulf Coast.

"Weaker business conditions combined with a less favorable job market continue to cast a cloud over consumers and heighten their sense of uncertainty and concern," said Lynn Franco, director of The Conference Board Consumer Research Center, in a statement. "Looking ahead, little economic improvement is expected, and with the holiday season around the corner, this is not welcome news."

The Present Situation Index, which measures how shoppers feel now about the economy, declined to 121.7 from 130.1 in August. The Expectations Index, which measures shoppers' outlook over the next six months, declined to 85.2 from 89.2.

Economists closely monitor confidence since consumer spending accounts for two-thirds of U.S. economic activity.

Tuesday's report showing a confidence slump does not bode well for retailers, who are already bracing for a challenging holiday season. Merchants have seen spending slow all year amid falling home prices and higher gas and food bills. The financial turmoil in August and escalating problems in the credit market have made economists and retailers more nervous about the prospects for a decent holiday shopping season.

While The Federal Reserve's decision last week to cut its interest rate by half a point was meant to soften the impact of the housing woes on the overall economy, economists say it won't do much to help spending this holiday.

A big issue is the job market, which saw its first drop in job creation in four years in August. Economists expect the job market to add 100,000 jobs in September when the Labor department reports its data on Oct. 5. Meanwhile, the unemployment rate is expected to inch up to 4.7 percent from 4.6 percent in July.