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From high to low end, the consumer's in hiding

First Wal-Mart, then Nordstrom, and now Macy's. As more retailers reveal their fourth quarter 2015 sales and 2016 outlooks, it's getting harder to identify pockets of strength in consumer spending.

While many investors had been hoping low gas prices and a series of minimum-wage increases would place the low-end consumer in a position of relative strength, Wal-Mart's fourth-quarter revenue decline and reduced 2016 guidance raised concerns that these economic trends might not be enough to stimulate spending.

At Nordstrom, another quarter of softness in its full-price stores reignited concerns that affluent shoppers are getting spooked by the seesawing stock market, while a comparable-sales decline at its discounted Rack locations signaled caution among the middle-class consumer.

And on Tuesday, Macy's said comparable sales during the fourth quarter declined 4.3 percent, despite a pickup in trends when the weather turned cold in January. Also Tuesday, the Conference Board said consumer confidence dropped to 92.2 in February, down from 97.8 last month, marking the lowest level in seven months.

These headlines, along with a series of less-than-stellar projections for retail sales growth, come as Wall Street analysts contemplate whether the U.S. economy is gearing up for another recession.

"Both Wall Street and Main Street households have begun to watch their spending, as we've seen both in our store checks and in higher personal savings rates," said Craig Johnson, president of Customer Growth Partners.

A woman shops for jewellery at a Kohl's department store in Alhambra, California.
Frederic J. Brown | AFP | Getty Images
A woman shops for jewellery at a Kohl's department store in Alhambra, California.

Macy's on Tuesday reported fourth quarter earnings results that topped its dramatically lowered guidance. But to get there, the department store had to take severe markdowns on cold-weather merchandise, which dented its gross margin by nearly 3 percentage points compared to the year-ago period.

What's more, the department store said it expects comparable sales to post a slight decline in 2016, after logging a 2.5 percent drop in 2015.

The results were just the latest indication that the middle-income consumer isn't spending as freely as they did before the recession. Earlier this month, Kohl's slashed its full-year guidance to between $3.95 and $4 — significantly below its prior guidance for earnings per share of $4.40 to $4.60 — citing weaker-than-expected same-store sales.

Meanwhile, despite a strong portfolio of brands including Timberland and The North Face, VF Corp last week posted "one of the most dramatic revenue misses in recent memory," according to Evercore ISI analyst Omar Saad, when sales fell 7 percentage points short of the company's outlook.

But soft spending trends haven't been limited to middle-income shoppers, who have been spending more of their money at off-price and discount stores, or waiting to buy items until they're marked 40 percent off.

As evidenced by recent sales results from Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus, Tiffany, and on Tuesday, Saks, wild swings in the stock market have contributed to a slowdown in retail spending among affluent consumers.

In a study by BDO's Consumer Business practice, 46 percent of retail CFOs surveyed listed financial market volatility as the leading factor influencing consumer confidence; that compares to just 26 percent who said so last year. Stalled global growth, a strong U.S. dollar and a shift in consumer preferences from material goods to experiences are also playing a role in the segment's weakness.

Because of these headwinds, analysts had been bullish on Wal-Mart and other retailers who cater to low-income shoppers, arguing their budgets would be disproportionately boosted by cheap gas prices and a recent round of minimum-wage hikes across 14 states.

But while Wal-Mart's U.S. stores experienced their sixth straight quarter of positive same-store sales growth — a trend management said has been aided by low gas prices — the world's largest retailer nonetheless cut its forecast for 2016 sales to come in flat.

Though Wal-Mart attributed this change to a stronger dollar and recent store closures, Moody's analyst Charlie O'Shea said the makeup of much of its customer base is also playing a role.

"The lower-end consumer still isn't benefiting from too many things from a macro perspective," he told CNBC last week.

Broadly speaking, several shifts in consumer preferences are also holding back retail sales growth.

For one, consumers are spending more on non-traditional retail categories. Of the estimated $130 billion in gas savings last year, Customer Growth Partners estimates more than three-fourths of it did not reach retail cash registers. Instead, 23 percent was allocated to higher housing, health care and insurance costs, while 19 percent went to automobiles. Another 15 percent went to incremental spending at bars and restaurants, with 19 being spent on additional gas.

At the same time, consumers are putting more money toward savings. According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the U.S. personal savings rate was 5.5 percent in December, up from 5 percent the prior year.

A recent survey by the National Retail Federation indicates consumers plan to continue shoring up their savings accounts. The industry trade group polled 7,108 Americans, asking what they plan to do with their tax refund. Among the two-thirds who expect to receive a refund, 49.2 percent said they would put at least some of their money into savings. That's up from 46.9 percent last year, and is the highest in survey history.

As a result of these trends, retailers are likewise being cautious. Analysts who attended the recent Las Vegas trade shows noted buyers were suffering from "weather PTSD," and had "very little appetite to place orders for next fall."

Though the industry is up against a multitude of headwinds, it's not all bad. According to a recent study of CEOs conducted by JDA and PwC, 48 percent of 305 executives questioned said they are confident their company will experience revenue growth over the next year. That compares to 44 percent last year.

There have also been pockets of strength among retailers' fourth-quarter reports, including a 31 percent sales gain from Under Armour and a 7.1 percent comparable sales gain for Home Depot. Such signs of life have caused some to question whether the industry's woes are consumer or retailer related.

"I don't think everybody had a horrible holiday," said Steve Barr, a sector leader at PwC. "The consumer showed a willingness to spend in [certain] categories and with the retailers with compelling offerings."

Investors will have a better indication of the strength of the consumer when retailers including Target, TJX and J.C. Penney report fourth-quarter earnings later this week. But tepid forecasts from retailers, combined with mediocre projections from The National Retail Federation and Customer Growth Partners, signal that 2016 will likely be another year of retailers just puttering along.

The NRF said earlier this month that it expects retail sales will grow 3.1 percent this year, which would be flat with last year's growth. Meanwhile, Customer Growth Partners' Johnson is calling for 2.4 percent year-over-year growth.

"Last year's nominal windfall in gasoline price savings proved much less of a 'tailwind' for retailers than most of the experts predicted," Johnson said. "Now, as we anniversary 2015's low prices, the tailwind is slowing to more of a gentle zephyr."

— Data visualization by CNBC Digital senior economics reporter John Schoen.