Retailers are blaming bad results on the IRS being too slow to deliver tax refunds

Shoppers look at merchandise at a Walmart store in Secaucus, N.J.
Lucas Jackson | Reuters

Uncle Sam is taking a lot of heat from retailers.

With sales off to a rough start in the new fiscal year, chains from Wal-Mart to Foot Locker and Burlington to Best Buy are blaming a planned delay in tax refunds as one culprit.

The credits, which benefit low- to middle-income households with children, are being distributed later by the Internal Revenue Service this year to give the agency adequate time to validate claims.

Yet while traffic and sales trends are picking up as checks are delivered, their delay contributed to $57 billion less in refunds being doled out through most of February, according to Morgan Stanley.

They also contributed to muted expectations from several major retailers. Though not every company blamed late refunds for soft first-quarter trends, negative outlooks outnumbered the positive by nearly a 5-to-1 margin, according to Retail Metrics.

"We have seen, in our businesses and as reported by a third-party service, a substantial reduction in mall traffic in February," L Brands' CFO Stuart Burgdoerfer told investors on the company's latest earnings call. "Is it tax refunds? Who knows what it is. But it was a substantial falloff."

Indeed, L Brands on Thursday reported a 13 percent decline in comparable sales for February, due in part to weak mall traffic and the discontinuation of Victoria's Secret swim line.

Analysts largely shook off the weak start to February, noting there were no major macroeconomic changes to indicate the drop-off would persist. Meanwhile, February is one of the lowest-volume months for retail sales, minimizing its impact on the quarter.

The Commerce Department will release February retail sales figures March 15.

It doesn't mean sales will come easy. With several major chains forecasting another quarter of revenue contraction, a record low number of Americans told the National Retail Federation that they'll spend their tax returns this year.

Instead, nearly half the survey's respondents who are expecting money back said they'll put it into savings. Roughly one-third said they'd use their refunds to pay down debt.

By comparison, just 20 percent will spend their money on everyday expenses, with less than 10 percent using it for major purchases. The NRF survey polled 7,609 Americans and had a margin of error of +/- 1.1 percentage points.

"Sure it hurts a little bit, but late tax refunds aren't the culprits for across the board misses," Stacey Widlitz, president of SW Retail Advisors, told CNBC. "Any new story that you're able to blame is great."