The New York Times on Wal-Mart, Macy's and the Economic Recovery

The New York Times examines earnings out this week from retailers including Wal-Mart Stores Inc. of Bentonville and upscale department store chain Macy's and finds a complicated picture of economic recovery.

Wal-Mart, the Bentonville-based economic bellwhether, defied analyst expectations and missed predictions on earnings per share and revenue, describing a "challenging" retail environment, a drop in store traffic and an American consumer that's facing higher payroll taxes and remains reluctant to spend.

But even upper-income consumers do not seem to be spending as freely as some hoped. While Nordstrom’s, which reaches a middle-to-luxury-end market, reported a higher-than-expected quarterly profit on Thursday, it too said sales “remained softer than anticipated” and lowered its forecast.

The latest sales reports painted a bleak picture for a sizable swath of the retail sector even as other economic indicators, like an increase in auto loans, showed signs of consumer confidence.

“There is a certain segment of the population that is faring well in this economy and have seen their net worth rise sharply with stock and housing market gains,” said Ken Perkins, president of Retail Metrics. “Then there is the much larger segment of Americans that are working in low-wage jobs, part-time jobs, that are struggling to make ends meet and are living paycheck to paycheck. They are not spending beyond necessities.”

Retailers are predicting an iffy back-to-school spending season. Meanwhile, the Times talks to people who say gains in housing and jobs aren't has great as they appear.

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