The perception that the American shopper is growing more skittish, more reluctant to spend and more elusive in stores since the recession weighed on the retail sector Friday.
The mood grew darker this week after some major retailers, including Wal-Mart, Macy's, Nordstrom and Kohl's, lowered their outlooks for the year. Most fell short of Wall Street expectations for the most recent quarter.
However, some industry watchers believe that consumers are still spending, just not where they used to.
"We believe that the consumer has de-emphasized their apparel consumption as we have observed a renewed interest in 'big ticket' consumption, including cars, vacations and homes," wrote analyst Richard Jaffe of Stifel, Nicolaus & Co.
And recent economic data supports that view.
On Friday, the U.S. Commerce Department reported that developers broke ground on homes at a faster pace in July to meet demand as people attempt to capitalize on lower mortgage rates.
Strong sales of automobiles in July showed demand for new vehicles is broad — and not slowing down. GM, Ford, Chrysler, Toyota and Nissan all reported double-digit sales gains last month.
Retailers are being forced to compete even more aggressively for those dollars with wages stagnant, taxes rising and the job market not fully recovered.
Average weekly paychecks have grown just 1.3 percent since the recession ended more than four years ago. Over the past 12 months, pay has trailed even low inflation.
Next week will provide an even more detailed look at the health of retailers.
J.C. Penney, Target, the Gap, Home Depot, Best Buy, Barnes & Noble, Saks, Staples and Sears all report quarterly earnings
Here's a look at how some retailers fared in trading Friday:
Wal-Mart Stores Inc.: Shares fell 26 cents to $74.15
Macy's Inc.: Shares fell 61 cents to $45.69
Kohl's Corp.: Shares fell 91 cents to $52.60
Nordstrom Inc.: Shares fell $1.99 to $57.34
Target Corp.: Shares fell 28 cents to $68.80
J.C. Penney Company Inc.: Shares fell 33 cents to $13.51