Strike Three! The American Consumer Is Out

Faced with delayed tax refunds, an increased paycheck tax bite and higher gas prices, U.S. consumers are proceeding cautiously and scaling back, a trend that has already impacted one large retailer's bottom line.

Nearly three-quarters of those polled by the National Retail Federation said their spending plans are taking a hit due to the expiration of a two-percent cut in payroll taxes that made consumers do a double-take on their paychecks at the start of the year. Lower-income consumers are already feeling the pinch, analysts said.

"We see there's three meaningful headwinds on the lower-income consumer this year that are taking place right now and in order of importance, I'd put it first on the delay in tax refunds," said Peter Keith, a senior research analyst at Piper Jaffray. "Secondly, I'd put it on the payroll tax cut expiration that was mentioned earlier. And lastly, we're starting to see gas prices go up."

To compensate, 46 percent of consumers said they plan to spend less overall while 35 percent plan to watch for sales more often, the NRF said. Dining out and "little luxuries," such as coffee shop visits and manicures, were two other areas where some consumers aimed to cut back on.

The payroll tax will be a significant headwind for retailers this year, said Kimberly Greenberger, a retail analyst at Morgan Stanley who downgraded the retail sector to "cautious" early last month.

"Unfortunately, the burden of the higher payroll taxes this year are falling squarely on the shoulders of the low- and middle-income consumer, and we think that's the consumer being pressured at this point," Greenberger said. "The Wal-Mart news this morning would seem to confirm that."

(Read more: Wal-Mart Tops Estimates, but Guidance Is Weak)

With these low- and middle-income consumers — Wal-Mart's core customers — hit by both a jolt in the paycheck and at the gas tank, analysts are looking to the company's earnings to gauge how the consumer has been impacted. Since it accounts for roughly 10 percent of nonautomotive retail spending in the U.S., the Bentonville, Ark., retailer is considered an economic bellwether and a good place to start.

JGI/Jamie Grill | Blend Images | Getty Images

So far, it appears customers are scaling back.

During the holiday quarter that ended in January, Wal-Mart beat earnings estimates, due in part to a lower-than-expected tax rate but fell shy of Wall Street's revenue forecasts. Same-store sales rose just 1 percent at Wal-Mart U.S., the company's largest unit, also missing estimates.

Last week, a leaked internal email from an executive first sparked concern that the company's sales were off to a shaky start in February and subsequently dragged down retail stocks.

"In case you haven't seen a sales report these days, February (month-to-date) sales are a total disaster," Jerry Murray, Wal-Mart's vice president of finance and logistics, said in an email to other executives that was obtained by Bloomberg News. "The worst start to a month I have seen in my (about) 7 years with the company."

The company subtly addressed the leak Thursday by acknowledging in its earnings report that sales had started off slower than planned due to the income tax refund. For the current quarter, Wal-Mart estimates U.S. same-store sales will be flat, down from a 2.6 percent rise last year. In a positive sign, it added that it has begun seeing more normalized sales activity as refund checks began arriving late last week.

Still, the check delay could affect how people spend their returns from Uncle Sam.

"Look, when people were getting those checks in January, they would go out and buy a new TV for the Super Bowl," said Matt Nemer, an analyst with Wells Fargo Securities. "We don't know how they are going to spend that money now. Giving this timing shift, we just don't know how they are going to spend that money when they get it a week or two or a month later."

Of those polled by the NRF, nearly 37 percent said they would use the refund to pay down debt while 44 percent said they would earmark it for savings. Only three out of 10 said they planned to spend it on everyday expenses, indicating that caution is winning out against the desire to spend.

BIGinsight Consumer Insights Director Pam Goodfellow said Americans are extremely mindful of how they spend their income these days, including tax refunds, which are no longer considered the windfalls to spend that they are in better economic times.

"Thanks to years of practice stemming from high gas and food prices and an uncertain economy, families will adjust to the changes in their take-home pay by purchasing generic brands, searching for coupons, downgrading on services like cable and Internet and re-evaluating their overall spending habits," Goodfellow added.

Despite the caution, Howard Ward, chief investment officer for Growth Equities at GAMCO, sees opportunity in the hesitancy.

"If we can grow payrolls by 160-, 170-, 175,000 a month, you're going to see consumer incomes going up," he forecast. "You're going to see that consumer spending is going to take care of itself. You want to take advantage of this somewhat bit of a cloud over the group right now, to buy some of their stocks."

-By CNBC's Katie Little; Follow her @katie_little_

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