The SpendingPulse data, which captures sales from Oct. 28 through Dec. 24 across all payment methods, is the first major snapshot of holiday retail sales. A clearer picture will emerge next week as retailers like Macy's and Target report monthly sales.
In the run-up to Christmas, analysts blamed bad weather for putting a damper on shopping. In late October, Superstorm Sandy battered the Northeast and mid-Atlantic states, which account for 24 percent of U.S. retail sales. That coupled with the presidential election, hurt sales during the first half of November.
Shopping picked up in the second half of November, but then the threat of the country falling off a "fiscal cliff" gained strength, throwing consumers off track once again. Lawmakers have yet to reach a deal that would prevent tax increases and government spending cuts set to take effect at the beginning of 2013. If the cuts and tax hikes kick in and stay in place for months, the Congressional Budget Office says the nation could fall back into recession.
Still, The National Retail Federation, the nation's largest retail trade group, said Wednesday that it's sticking to its forecast for total sales for November and December to be up 4.1 percent to $586.1 billion this year. That's more than a percentage point lower than the growth in each of the past two years, and the smallest increase since 2009 when sales were up just 0.3 percent.
Kathy Grannis, a spokeswoman for the group, noted that the trade group's definition of holiday sales not only includes clothes and electronics, but also food and building supplies.
"Stores have a big week ahead, and it's still too early to know how the holiday season fared, at this point," she said.
Anderson reported from Atlanta and Choi reported from New York.
Ann D'Innocenzio in New York and Daniel Wagner in Washington contributed to this report.