Erratic weather and tepid economic news dampened sales, according to data released Wednesday by MasterCard Advisors' SpendingPulse, which includes transactions in all forms including cash.
But pockets of growth during the five weeks between Aug. 29 and Oct. 2 point to a modestly more robust holiday season this year than last.
Clothing sales rose 3.8 percent, driven by children's and family clothing, which includes teen retailers, as stores offered back-to-school discounts.
Other positive categories included electronics, up 4.7 percent. In that category, most of the growth came in sales between $500 to $1,000, as well as under $25.
Footwear and jewelry each inched up 0.7 percent. And, as usual, online sales were a bright spot, rising 7.8 percent, led by higher online clothing sales.
But luxury sales, excluding jewelry, fell by 5.4 percent from last year's already weak totals, losing ground despite recovery in the stock market - the S&P 500 rose 9 percent during the month.
"The overall story here is there is some growth but not dynamic growth," said Michael McNamara, vice president of research and analysis for Spending Pulse. He said September was like August, with "mild growth in certain areas, but some (areas) continued somewhat struggling."
The results come as the crucial holiday season looms, but this one could be better than last year's if the stock market keeps recovering and unemployment improves, McNamara said.
"If we can just get some stability in the economic environment, that puts you in a better position for the spending environment as you enter November and December," he said.
Meanwhile, the National Retail Federation, a trade group, said it expects sales during the holiday season to rise 2.3 percent to $447.1 billion, better than the 0.4 percent gain in 2009's holiday season.
That increase would be the largest since 2006, when retailers had a 3.1 percent increase. But it would still fall short of the 10-year historic average of 2.5 percent, according to NRF calculations.
The total retail sales figures from the NRF exclude auto dealers, gas stations, restaurants and businesses that operate only online but include online sales from physical stores.
The forecast is roughly parallel with those from economists, who generally foresee holiday sales rising. The International Council of Shopping Centers expects selected U.S. chain stores reporting monthly revenue Thursday to show 3 percent to 3.5 percent increases at locations open at least a year - the largest increase since 2006.
Michael P. Niemira, chief economist and director of research for ICSC, predicts stores' holiday hiring will rise a bit from last year. He also sees overall employment growth, which should support increased spending.
"September's numbers may not be anything to write home about, but underlying trends still are relatively positive," Niemira said. "If consumers didn't spend in September, they'll have more to spend when the holiday season rolls around."