Economists were looking for a 0.2% gain.
Excluding autos and gas, sales climbed by just 0.1%, missing expectations for a 0.4% gain.
Among the areas of strength was clothing.
"Clothing increased 0.4% primarily on the extreme discounting at related stores as many retailers rid the shelves of summer apparel, making way for the back-to-school season ? the second largest season after Christmas holiday spending," said Bloomberg economists Richard Yamarone and Josh Wright.
"A bit disappointing but the trend is OK and August should be better," said Pantheon Macroeconomics Ian Shepherdson. "Core sales in the three months to July compared to the previous three months rose at a decent 6.2% annualized rate, but this is now set to slow. Consumers just don't have the cashflow to financed sustained gains above 4%. Even assuming an Aug rebound, Q3 consumption looks to be heading for only 2% or so."