Earnings preview: What to look for from Wal-Mart, Macy's

Investors will be scanning retail earnings reports, due out over the next few weeks, for the lessons they hold about the back-to-school shopping season, the second-busiest retail period after the winter holidays.

Though about 90 percent of S&P 500 companies have already reported second-quarter earnings, some of the biggest retailers are just gearing up to report. And there isn't a clear narrative among those that have already reported.

Take Michael Kors, which reported strong earnings and sales while forecasting strong momentum. That strength was not consistent across the previously Teflon-like high end. Ralph Lauren posted conservative earnings in line with the Street's expectations and reiterated weak sales guidance.

Meanwhile, an earnings warning from teen retailer American Eagle Outfitters sent shockwaves through its peers, though it's still uncertain if its story will play out for all the names in the group.

The company's comments also highlighted that there were fewer shoppers at the mall, which prompted it to cut its prices deeper than it planned.

Retailer earnings estimates

Q2 Earnings
Same Store Sales
Estimates (Y/Y)
Macy's M Wednesday, August 14, 2013 $0.79 $6.28 billion 2.50%
Wal-Mart WMT Thursday, August 15, 2013 $1.25 $118.74 billion 1.10%
Kohl's KSS Thursday, August 15, 2013 $1.06 $4.31 billion 1.30%
Nordstrom JWN Thursday, August 15, 2013 $0.88 $3.295 billion 6.90%
Source: Thomson Reuters, August 7

June is largely an inventory-clearing month for retailers preparing to stock and sell back-to-school merchandise. This year, many had such items in place and were rolling out promotions in early- to mid-July, despite numerous surveys that indicated shoppers planned to buy products closer to the time they need them.

(Read more: Good grades ahead for back-to-school sales)

Guidance and commentary from management on earnings conference calls will certainly be a focus of the Street as investors gear up to position portfolios to capitalize on the rest of the back-to-school season. The Thomson Reuters Same-Store Sales Index of 78 retailers estimates average second-quarter same-store sales growth of 1.9 percent; without Wal-Mart, expectations are for 1.6 percent growth year over year.

What to watch for

On Wednesday, Macy's will report before the opening bell sounds. The department store has been a favorite of many bullish investors and analysts lately, despite its shares lagging relative to the S&P 500 Retail Index over both the past three-month and year-to-date periods.

(Read more: Amid slow recovery, retailers boost sales with promotions)

A number of retailers have found it difficult to capture middle-income consumers this year, but Macy's has done a better job than most thanks in part to its strategy of making online and real-world shopping easier and to provide items more closely tailored to the local market. Higher-end department store Bloomingdale's is also part of Macy's.

According to Thomson Reuters, expectations are for Macy's to report second-quarter earnings per share of 79 cents on revenue of $6.28 billion. Same-store sales, which measure sales at store open at least a year, are expected to rise 2.5 percent.

The world's largest retailer reports earnings Thursday morning before the opening bell. Beyond the total profit and revenue results, the number to watch for in Wal-Mart's earnings release is U.S. same-store sales. Analysts are looking for uninspiring growth of 0.7 percent in the U.S. and 1.1 percent overall, according to Thomson Reuters. The discount chain's U.S. same-store sales in the first quarter dropped for the first time since summer 2011.

(Read more: Wal-Mart weighs bid for Li's supermarket chain: Sources)

Investors will want to know if that was a blip or the beginning of a downward trend. Beyond the numbers, Wall Street will want to know how average Walmart shoppers are feeling about their financial situation and how that is affecting their spending. Any commentary about early sales for back-to-school season will peak investor interest. Analysts are expecting profit of $1.25 per share on revenue of $118.74 billion.

Department stores Kohl's and Nordstrom round out the retail reports Thursday.

Retail watchers have long expected that Kohl's would benefit from J.C. Penney's recent struggles, but so far, that does not seem to have shown up in its quarterly results. Any indication that Kohl's is gaining market share lost by the beleaguered J.C. Penney's will comfort Kohl's investors.

(Read more: Big traders bet it will get even worse for JC Penney)

In its last earnings commentary, Kohl's said it expected sales to rebound after bad weather in the spring hurt sales in the first quarter. The company has been working to recover from some inventory blunders last year, trying to get the right type and amount of merchandise in place to meet demand. Wall Street is looking for $1.06 EPS on revenue of $4.31 billion. Kohl's same-store sales are expected to grow by 1.3 percent.

The week beginning Aug. 19 is full of major retail reports, with a blockbuster day in store on Aug. 20. J.C. Penney, Target, Home Depot and Saks are among the big names reporting during the week.

—By CNBC's Courtney Reagan. Follow her on Twitter @CourtReagan.