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Retail sales fizzle. Are consumers tapped out?

July 5, 2012: 12:24 PM ET

Too bad Macy's sales weren't as pretty

The annual Macy's 4th of July fireworks show in New York City provided the usual oohs and ahhs. But the pyrotechnics were quickly replaced by a dud of a June sales report from Macy's Thursday morning.

Macy's (M) said that sales at stores open at least a year, the most widely watched measure of health in retailing, were up just 1.2% from a year ago. Analysts were expecting so-called same-store sales growth of 2.3% according to Briefing.com.

But the tone of Macy's CEO Terry Lundgren makes the sales miss even more alarming. In a press release Thursday, Lundgren described the macroeconomic environment as "stagnant at best" and noted that tourists were spending less in New York and other cities.

That's obviously not a good sign. Macy's, because of its flagship store in midtown Manhattan, is a great barometer of global consumer sentiment. When the euro was significantly stronger than it was in years past, the store was deluged by European tourists looking to capitalize on the weaker dollar -- especially around the holidays. (For a look at how strong the world's economy used to be, check out this Black Friday piece I did five years ago on the eve of the Great Recession.)

Now, it would be one thing if sluggish sales could be written off as something unique to the company. But it's not. Target (TGT), Costco (COST), Kohl's (KSS) and The Gap (GPS) also reported same-store sales that were below forecasts.

To be fair, not all retailers reported poor results. Limited Brands (LTD), Saks (SKS) and TJX (TJX) all posted better-than-expected sales. And investors mostly shrugged off the bad news from the industry laggards. Shares of Macy's, Kohl's and Gap actually rose Thursday morning. But there seems to be a disconnect here. The SPDR S&P Retail ETF (XRT) is up 15% year-to-date, outperforming the broader market.

Some traders who are active on Twitter and StockTwits were quick to point out that the bad news was probably expected. Shares of Macy's, for example, fell more than 20% from early May through the end of June.

Last June was also particularly strong for retailers. So it's only natural for retailers to not do as well as a year ago. There also seems to be an interesting trend developing. Consumers are definitely shopping more at stores that offer bargains. But luxury goods retailers are holding up well too.

I guess it makes sense that the 1% can still afford to shop until they drop regardless of what's going on in Europe. And some discount retailers like Wal-Mart (WMT) should thrive in an economy where uncertainty reigns supreme. But why are nearly all retail stocks doing so well?

It's hard to make the case that consumers can continue to spend unless the job market and overall economy finally start to pick up steam. One good report from payroll processor ADP is not a reason to celebrate.

When the government reports the official employment figures for June tomorrow morning, we're likely to see yet another month of tepid wage gains. In May, average hourly earnings were up just 1.7% in the past 12 months. That simply matches the year-over-year increase that the government reported for the price of all consumer goods in May. In other words, consumers are spinning their wheels.

What's more, consumers are running out of wiggle room if they want to keep spending. The personal savings rate has steadily declined since the worst of the Great Recession. During the second quarter of 2009, the savings rate was 6.2% -- a sign that people were starting to embrace thrift and live more frugally. But in the first quarter of 2012, the savings rate was just 3.7% -- its lowest level since the fourth quarter of 2007.

Still, none of this fazed investors Thursday. Maybe the market is hoping the worst is over and that consumers will open up their wallets more freely in the coming months. And hey, if retail sales continue to be lackluster, the companies can always trot out the tried and true meteorological excuse.

Of course, it will probably be too rainy in September, too cold in December and too temperate in April to cause consumers to want to get in their cars and drive to the store. And don't forget that Easter in 2013 falls on March 31. That's really going to hurt retail sales next April!

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Paul Lamonica
Paul R. La Monica
Assistant Managing Editor, CNNMoney

Paul R. La Monica is an assistant managing editor at CNNMoney. He is the author of the site's daily column, The Buzz, and also tweets throughout the day about the markets and economy @LaMonicaBuzz. La Monica also oversees the site's economic, markets and technology coverage.

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