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.