So far, it appears customers are scaling back.
During the holiday quarter that ended in January, Wal-Mart beat earnings estimates, due in part to a lower-than-expected tax rate but fell shy of Wall Street's revenue forecasts. Same-store sales rose just 1 percent at Wal-Mart U.S., the company's largest unit, also missing estimates.
Last week, a leaked internal email from an executive first sparked concern that the company's sales were off to a shaky start in February and subsequently dragged down retail stocks.
"In case you haven't seen a sales report these days, February (month-to-date) sales are a total disaster," Jerry Murray, Wal-Mart's vice president of finance and logistics, said in an email to other executives that was obtained by Bloomberg News. "The worst start to a month I have seen in my (about) 7 years with the company."
The company subtly addressed the leak Thursday by acknowledging in its earnings report that sales had started off slower than planned due to the income tax refund. For the current quarter, Wal-Mart estimates U.S. same-store sales will be flat, down from a 2.6 percent rise last year. In a positive sign, it added that it has begun seeing more normalized sales activity as refund checks began arriving late last week.
Still, the check delay could affect how people spend their returns from Uncle Sam.
"Look, when people were getting those checks in January, they would go out and buy a new TV for the Super Bowl," said Matt Nemer, an analyst with Wells Fargo Securities. "We don't know how they are going to spend that money now. Giving this timing shift, we just don't know how they are going to spend that money when they get it a week or two or a month later."
Of those polled by the NRF, nearly 37 percent said they would use the refund to pay down debt while 44 percent said they would earmark it for savings. Only three out of 10 said they planned to spend it on everyday expenses, indicating that caution is winning out against the desire to spend.
BIGinsight Consumer Insights Director Pam Goodfellow said Americans are extremely mindful of how they spend their income these days, including tax refunds, which are no longer considered the windfalls to spend that they are in better economic times.
"Thanks to years of practice stemming from high gas and food prices and an uncertain economy, families will adjust to the changes in their take-home pay by purchasing generic brands, searching for coupons, downgrading on services like cable and Internet and re-evaluating their overall spending habits," Goodfellow added.
Despite the caution, Howard Ward, chief investment officer for Growth Equities at GAMCO, sees opportunity in the hesitancy.
"If we can grow payrolls by 160-, 170-, 175,000 a month, you're going to see consumer incomes going up," he forecast. "You're going to see that consumer spending is going to take care of itself. You want to take advantage of this somewhat bit of a cloud over the group right now, to buy some of their stocks."
-By CNBC's Katie Little; Follow her
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