What we’ll learn about the consumer this week

Investors are gearing up for a big week of retail earnings, with companies including Wal-Mart, Macy's and J.C. Penney set to release results. But as concerns about the American consumer persist, few expect to hear anything especially encouraging.

"I think that the consumer has been struggling over the past six months," said Anthony Grisanti of GRZ Energy. "And we know that companies have been able to do more with less, and they've been able to squeeze a little bit more money out of their earnings. But what we haven't seen is the good sales coming in from the consumer. So if those consumers aren't strong, if those numbers aren't strong, I'm a seller" of S&P 500 futures.

"I don't right now see any inflection point that would make me change my mind in the near-term," said Jonathan Golub, chief U.S. market strategist at RBC Capital Markets. He recently downgraded his view of the consumer discretionary sector to "market weight." "But obviously, I'll be watching very closely, because retail earnings are the only thing holding us between now and the end of earnings season."

Golub noted with 452 of the S&P 500 companies having already reported, less than 50 percent of retail companies have unveiled their quarterly results so far. Retail remains the only major wild card for second quarter results.

The key name will be none other than the world's largest retailer. Wal-Mart is set to report on Thursday before the market's opening bell. And with Wal-Mart U.S. CEO Bill Simon (who has since left the company) telling Reuters in early July that the improving economic picture isn't reading through to Wal-Mart's sales, expectations are not high.

"The low or moderate income consumer is really struggling right now. They haven't seen any kind of significant wage increases, and they're living paycheck to paycheck," said Ken Perkins, the president of independent retail research company Retail Metrics. As a result, "Wal-Mart is having a heck of a time trying to generate positive comps [or sales comparisons to the prior year] in the U.S."

A customer exits a Wal-Mart store in Washington.
Bonnie Jo Mount | The Washington Post | Getty Images
A customer exits a Wal-Mart store in Washington.

Golub of RBC Capital Markets agreed that stagnant wages aren't helping, but added there are other factors at work.

"People are spending more money on media—from phones to cable—and that's creating some crowding-out," he told CNBC.com. More people are spending their money on big-ticket items like cars, as well. "And on the retail side, online [shopping] is having a very big impact."

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So if this week's results are even weaker than most expect, what's the best play?

Retail earnings are "going to give me some indication of how to treat commodities such as energy and food and grains," said Brian Stutland of Equity Armor Investments. "Because I think if the consumer shows any sign of weakness, commodities will be under pressure."

—By CNBC's Alex Rosenberg

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