4 economic signs in merchants' windows

As retailers trot out results, here's what analysts will be watching to determine the real depth of a national spending slump.

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By Parija B. Kavilanz, CNNMoney.com senior writer

Mixed bag for Wal-Mart
World's largest retailer reports strong fourth-quarter profits but warns that 2008 won't be as strong.

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Cash registers at some of America's best-known merchants will also be thermometers in the coming week.

As some key retailers trot out their quarterly results, analysts say they're interested in watching for signals about how much consumer spending could cool in the months ahead.

Merchants including Lowe's, Home Depot (HD, Fortune 500), Macy's, Nordstrom (JWN, Fortune 500) and Target (TGT, Fortune 500) are slated to report earnings next week.

This cross-section of sellers should provide good insight into whether or not consumer spending is holding up in the home improvement, department store, apparel and discounting sectors.

Given that consumer spending fuels two-third of the economy, a healthy economy depends, in a big way, on the ability and inclination of Americans to keep shopping.

Here's what we already know: After a very poor holiday shopping season, most of these retailers are expected to log profit and sales for the quarter that will be softer than a year earlier.

And sluggish gift card redemptions and more price cuts did nothing to spur sales in January as cash-strapped households buckled under the burden of steep winter energy bills, gas prices, and ongoing pressures from housing and credit market problems.

"Over the last couple of months the topline growth [revenue for retailers] just hasn't been there," said Stephen Hoch, director of Wharton Business School's Jay H. Baker division of retailing.

"Consumers have retrenched, but I think it's been much more than retailers are telling us," Hoch said.

Even if companies aren't telling the whole story, their actions speak volumes.

Macy's, Home Depot, Sears, J.C. Penney (JCP, Fortune 500) and others recently announced they were consolidating operations and cutting jobs to curb costs to offset weakening sales.

What's more, Hoch and others are betting on more tell-tale signs from companies in the days ahead that will show just how tapped out American consumers really are.

Here's what they're looking for.

Turmoil at home. The home improvement market has taken it on the chin over the past year as both Home Depot's and Lowe's business has been badly hurt by the housing slump.

Moreover, the weakening economy has dented demand for new appliances, which typically are a higher-margin category for both retailers.

Home Depot is expected to report a 13% drop in fourth-quarter profit and an 11% sales decline for the period. Analysts surveyed by Thomson Financial also expect Lowe's profit to tumble 37% with just a marginal 2% rise in quarterly revenue.

Stevan Buxbaum, with the Buxbaum Group consulting firm, said he's watching for weakness in both retailers' contracting business. "This will show if people are afraid to commit dollars in the spring and summer months," he said.

Two other factors - slowing store traffic and a drop in average amount of money shoppers spent - would signal further sales contraction ahead.

One analyst feels differently, however.

Craig Johnson, president of Customer Growth Partners, is forecasting a rebound for the sector. He said much higher home heating bills stumped consumers over the winter and further eroded household budgets.

"As it gets warmer, we could get a decent rebound in home-related purchases even though it won't turn things overnight for the sector," Johnson said.

Discount distress. Although both Wal-Mart and Target operate in the same discount space, Wal-Mart's sales have outperformed its rival's over the past few months.

That's because Wal-Mart's prices are cheaper than Target's, and Wal-Mart sells more of everyday consumables such as milk and groceries. Target is expected to log a 5% drop in quarterly profit and a 2% increase in sales.

Morningstar analyst Joseph Beaulieu will be watching for announcements from Target about price cuts and changes in the product mix to include more consumables.

"Target typically doesn't announce big price cuts the way Wal-Mart does," he said. "If they do, it will mark a major strategy change for the company in a difficult environment."

Bigger the box, bigger the problem. Macy's is already in crisis mode, according to Wharton's Hoch. "It's hard to look good to consumers or investors when you're closing stores and laying off people," he said.

Macy's is expected to report a 4% profit decline and a 6% drop in its fourth-quarter sales.

Macy's problems are three-fold. First, sales at anchor stores such as Macy's are suffering from overall declining mall traffic as shoppers increasingly opt to shop closer to home.

Second, spending on clothing, shoes, jewelry and home-related goods - all discretionary items that fill up department stores - typically gets slashed first when consumers rein in their spending.

Third, Hoch said Macy's just has too much retail space chasing fewer shoppers.

Johnson said Macy's has no choice but to resort to its old strategy of weekly promotions. The retailer has tried to scale back on coupons and discounts, only to see its customer counts drop.

Luxury isn't immune to a downturn. This is especially true of the "aspirational" luxury brands - such as Coach, Tiffany and Nordstrom - whose clientele comprise of a mix of mid and high-income shoppers.

Nordstrom's profit is forecast to dip 1% amid a 4% decline in quarterly sales.

Hoch expects margins at Nordstrom to decline, especially after the retailer was forced to cut prices in order to clear inventory over the holiday shopping season.

"Nordstrom still has a strong balance sheet. Its business is holding steady for now," Hoch said.

Still, given that its business evolves around discretionary purchases, Hoch said he's keen to hear what the retailer says about its inventory heading into spring and customer traffic trends.

Nordstrom's biggest challenge is in the top three U.S. luxury markets of New York, Florida and California, where the housing slump and energy costs have stymied retail spending, Johnson said.

"Aspirational customers aren't super-rich. These are consumers who've been badly hurt by declining equity in their homes, higher heating bills and gas prices," he said. To top of page

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Market indexes are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer The Dow Jones IndexesSM are proprietary to and distributed by Dow Jones & Company, Inc. and have been licensed for use. All content of the Dow Jones IndexesSM © 2014 is proprietary to Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Chicago Mercantile Association. The market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved. Most stock quote data provided by BATS.