Retail earnings due out Wednesday will give the market a sense of what's going on among discount shoppers.
Wall Street will get the fourth-quarter earnings reports before the bell from discounters Target, Dollar Tree and TJX. Department store JCPenney, which has a pricing structure that is positioned as "everyday low price" also reports earnings after the bell and is expected to be the week's headline retail report.
The beginning of 2013 has seen higher payroll taxes, rising gas prices and delayed tax refunds hitting different consumer segments in varying ways.
Discount retailers can often flourish if higher-income Americans begin to "trade down" in purchasing habits. Although Wall Street does not expect the current macroeconomic environment to pressure higher-income Americans in a meaningful way, it is a situation that is worth watching because we are seeing signs of strain among lower-income Americans. Wal-Mart indicated its lower-income consumer is feeling constrained and as a result saw a disappointing start to February sales.
During the financial crisis, behemoth Wal-Mart did lose some market share to dollar stores. The world's largest retailer has addressed misplaced strategies that helped contribute to that trend, and it seems to be clawing some of it back despite a still-struggling lower-income consumer. However, Dollar Tree is still fighting Goliath.
Dollar Tree operates more than 4,600 stores under the brands Dollar Tree, Deal$ and Dollar Bills in the United States and Canada. The retailer has surprised Wall Street for the past eight quarters, topping expectations for earnings per share each time. This time, analysts are looking for earnings per shares of 99 cents on revenue of $2.23 billion. Currently, expectations are for same-store sales to grow 2 percent in the fourth quarter, which would beat Wal-Mart's 1.3 percent gain for its U.S. stores open at least 12 months.
Big box discounter Target said holiday clearance helped boost its same-store sales in a press release issued earlier this month, but how did consumer spend once the Christmas ornaments were packed away?
The Target shopper is largely considered to have a slightly higher income than the average Wal-Mart shopper, but is certainly not beyond feeling the pain of higher prices at the pump, higher payroll taxes and a delay in receiving tax refund checks.
There are other questions as well. Target's product partnership with Neiman-Marcus for the holidays was largely disappointing, but investors are wondering if the Prabal Gurung limited collection that hit the stores earlier this month fared better?
(Read More: How Target Rebounded From Holiday Disappointment)
Beyond the general merchandise Target sells, grocery has been a big initiative. Wall Street wants to know if the retailer has seen market share growth in this segment of its business.
Target shares have outperformed both the S&P Retail Index and the benchmark S&P 500 so far in 2013. Analysts polled by Thomson Reuters are expecting earnings of $1.48 per share on revenue of $22.69 billion for the fiscal fourth quarter.
TJX Companies has posted some of the strongest, most consistent same-store sales trends over the past year. TJX operates more than 2,800 T.J. Maxx, Marshalls, and HomeGoods stores in the U.S., Canada and Europe and during the quarter, the off-price retailer acquired online retailer Sierra Trading Post. Investors will be interested in any further detail management has to offer on how it plans to integrate the online retailer's assets into TJX multi-channel strategy going forward.
Analysts polled by Thomson Reuters are looking for TJX to earn 81 cents a share on $7.67 billion in revenue. Some have speculated that TJX and other discounters have in fact benefited from J.C. Penney's recent struggles.
J.C. Penney remains one of the most followed retailers as it continues to struggle through its transformation. Analysts are expecting another awful quarter for same-store sales, estimating a 26.9 percent decrease year-over-year.
Investors will want to know if the company's return to hosting sales — albeit event-driven, targeted sales — has reinvigorated shoppers by improving traffic and conversion — in other words, did more shoppers come to the store and actually make purchases.
(Read More: J.C. Penney: You Can Dress It Up, but It's Still a Discount)
But as with all the retailers, the most important details of the earnings releases and management commentary is its outlook. Although J.C. Penney has shied away from issuing forecasts, the commentary from CEO Ron Johnson will be closely followed for his overall expectations as the company enters its second year of its four-year transformation.
Analysts will also look to see how much cash the company has on its balance sheet after going into the second phase of this turnaround. Expectations are low for J.C. Penney with analysts looking for a fourth-quarter loss of 18 cents per share on revenue of $4.08 billion.
Separately, but still of interest to Wall Street, Johnson will testify in defense of JCPenney on Friday in New York Supreme Court as it fights lawsuits filed by Macy's. Macy's currently has a contract with Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia to sell branded products in its department stores and alleges that if JCPenney sells Martha Stewart-branded products in certain categories it will be in violation of its exclusivity agreement with Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia. (Read More: Martha Stewart's J.C. Penney Deal Left Macy's CEO 'Sick')
Analyst Expectations for Discount Retailer Earnings
|EPS||REVENUE||SAME STORE SALES|
|Dollar Tree Q4||$ 0.99||$2.23 billion||2.0%|
|Target Q4||$1.48||$22.69 billion||0.8%|
|TJX Q4||$0.81||$7.67 billion||3.9%|
|Limited Q4||$1.74||$3.77 billion||3.6%|
|JCPenney Q4||$(0.18)||$4.08 billion||(26.9%)|
Source: Source: Thomson Reuters
-By CNBC's Courtney Reagan; Follow her on Twitter @CourtReagan
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