Wal-Mart CEO Says ‘Cliff’ Talk Hurting Christmas Spending

Walmart President and CEO Michael Terry Duke.
Getty Images
Walmart President and CEO Michael Terry Duke.

So much of the debate surrounding the "fiscal cliff" has focused on income taxes for the wealthy, but the pocketbook issues at the heart of the matter aren't limited to the 1 percent.

This point was driven home Tuesday night in a rare appearance by Wal-Mart Stores President and CEO Mike Duke at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York City. In a wide-ranging conversation that lasted more than an hour, Duke said the fiscal cliff debate is dampening consumer spending.

"A week before the election only 25 percent of our core customers, even knew what fiscal cliff meant," Duke said. "One week after the election, it was up to 75 percent. Now, these same customers, 15 percent are telling us this discussion about the fiscal cliff will affect what they spend on Christmas."

Wal-Mart surveys its consumers in a variety of ways, and beyond concerns about the fiscal cliff, Duke sums up his consumers' economic and financial conditions as "fragile."

(Read More: 'Let's Just Do It,' Dimon Says of Avoiding the 'Cliff')

He said he shared his customers' thoughts with President Barack Obama a week after the election, and since the president was interested in hearing more about how Wal-Mart shoppers were feeling, he has continued to share this polling data with the administration.

Ahead of Duke's appearance, protesters gathered outside the building. This prompted presider, Daniel Doctoroff, who is CEO of Bloomberg, to begin his introduction by congratulating those in attendance for making it through the "enthusiastic crowds" outside. (None of the protesters, it turns out, were Wal-Mart employees.)

Doctoroff continued, "I'm told the last person who received such a welcome was Muammar Gaddafi." The crowd chuckled.

(Read More: Fiscal Cliff Countdown-CNBC Blog)

Duke thanked Doctoroff for the introduction and added, "…and I really appreciate the warm introduction outside on the sidewalk. And it shows this love for Wal-Mart that New Yorkers have for us." This was a reference to Wal-Mart's long fight for a presence in New York City that has yet to succeed for a variety of reasons.

"We've had good success over the years, and at times that leads to opposition," Duke said. "As those express points of view that might be different than mine, I say isn't it wonderful that we can live in a country and be here in this great city and have the freedom to express different points of view."

Wal-Mart's recent success includes what it said was its best Black Friday event ever. In November, the company said it expects its fourth-quarter earnings per share to be in the range of $1.53 to $1.58 a share.

Wal-Mart also said it expects it is "well positioned" for the holiday season because the discount retailer performs well when consumer confidence is down.

Questions? Comments? Email us at consumernation@cnbc.com. Follow Courtney Reagan on Twitter @CourtReagan.