Weaker-than-expected December numbers from Wal-Mart sent stock futures lower as retailers overall painted a bleak picture of holiday sales.
Futures were off their lows of the morning, weekly jobless claims taking an unexpected dropeven though continuing claims rose and analysts estimated that Friday's monthly numbers could show a 7 percent unemployment rate.
Wal-Mart shares fell more than 7 percent in premarket trading after the nation's largest retailer said its sales for the month gained just 1.7 percent against estimates of 2.8 percent.
Wal-Mart wasn't alone in reporting December sales that fell short of expectations.
Costco Wholesale reported a 4 percent fall in sales at stores open at least a year in December, hurt mainly by lower gas prices and foreign exchange losses. Same-store sales in the U.S. fell 2 percent, while international division sales fell 11 percent.
Also in retail, Macy's is expected to announce it will close 10 locations, the Wall Street Journal reported citing a person familiar with the matter, as the retailer had reported a $30 million loss in the first nine months of 2008, with sales dropping 4.3 percent.
Bad employment numbers continued to pile up ahead of Friday's jobs report. Monster Worldwide , an online careers and recruiting firm, said its employment index fell to 131 points last month from 143 in November. The December reading is down 22 percent from 169 a year ago.
Weekly jobless claims data are due at 8:30 am New York time and are expected to have risen to 550,000 last week from a previous 492,000, according to Briefing.com.
In other news, the Bank of England is expected to cut interest rates to a record low in an attempt to rein in the effects of the global economic slowdown.
And talks between Russia's Gazprom and Ukraine's Naftogaz over frozen gas supplies for Europe continue, officials from Naftogaz said.
Asian stocks closed sharply lower as risk aversion returned after a string of bad news on the U.S. economy, and European shares were also trading down.