"Must-have items" were compelling customers to shop, said David Bassuk at AlixPartners, a consulting firm. Beyond that, "the consumer is very pensive," he said.
"They're cautiously looking around, they're holding back on spending and they're really uneasy about what is going on in Washington. When a consumer feels this way, the retail community needs to be much more aggressive to get them to spend," he said.
Same store sales among companies that still report sales figures were less than expected in September, The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday.
"Back-to-school sales were lackluster at best," said Ken Perkins at Retail Metrics.
"The fashion cycle was uninspiring," he said. Further, he said, the looming possibility of a government shutdown -- which came to pass in October -- dampened consumer enthusiasm.
With consumers holding back, there were still opportunities for sales of big-ticket items, such as cars or computers, given they are often purchased on a must-have basis.
Teenagers proved to be especially cautious in September, the Journal said.
Same store sales at Buckle Inc., a retailer catering to teens, were expected to rise 1.2 percent. But they dropped 4.5 percent in September.
Sales also fell at teen-oriented Zumiez Inc., dropping 0.6 percent, which was in line with expectations.
Discount chain Fred's Inc. said same store sales rose 2.8 percent, slightly better than expected. Costco Wholesale Corp. said sales rose 5 percent, one tick less than expected.
The L Brands Inc. retail group said sales rose 1 percent, half the rate that was expected. The company also said it required more discounts than it had planned to bring up business volume.
The retailer's youth-oriented Pink division under-performed, as did Victoria's Secret, which includes the Pink division, the Journal said.