Wal-Mart's Woes Wake Up Worrywarts

The Bureau of Labor Statistics tells us the employment picture is getting rosier by the day, with initial jobless claims hitting 305,000 and beating expectations for the fourth straight week, its lowest level in years. Yet because of the limitations inherent in the survey, a more reliable indicator may be Wal-Mart's  (NYSE: WMT  )  relationship with its suppliers.

According to a recent Bloomberg article, the retail giant told some of its suppliers that it's looking to cut its inventory for the third and fourth quarters, suggesting that as we head into the Christmas season, when all these new jobs (or fewer unemployed) should have everyone flush with cash, there's reason to worry the job market may not be as strong as we've been led to believe.

While Wal-Mart called the Bloomberg article "completely false" in that it was misleading to say it was cutting orders due to rising inventories, the retail king saw its inventory increase 6.9% last quarter because of unforeseen softness trends and it was expecting the second half of 2013 to experience further weakness in consumer spending. It also trimmed its full-year profit guidance.

Wal-Mart might be managing its inventory on a category-by-category basis, as it says, but the overarching theme here and among other retailers is that this is going to be a fairly dour six months. Macy's  (NYSE: M  ) , for example, also missed expectations and cut its full-year forecast, while analysts anticipate Target's (NYSE: TGT  ) third quarter to be weak as well with comps coming in at the low end of a 1% to 2% range, and the fourth quarter exhibiting similarly subdued growth.

According to the market researchers at ShopperTrak, while holiday sales are expected to grow 2.4% this year, actual retail traffic is expected to fall. And despite some retailers like Sears Holdings (NASDAQ: SHLD  ) continually pushing the envelope -- and pushing buttons -- by advertising Christmas earlier and earlier in the year, there's going to be an abbreviated schedule between Black Friday, when most people begin their holiday excess, and Christmas. There are only 25 shopping days that are bracketed by the unofficial shopping start and end dates this year, compared to 31 last year.

Certainly some of the slowdown will be due to consumers buying more stuff online. Last year online sales crossed the $1 billion threshold for the first time ever, surging 26% on Black Friday as 57.3 million Americans visited e-commerce sites. But the economy isn't as healthy as the BLS would have you believe because the labor nonparticipation rate is at levels not seen in over 30 years. There's a reason consumers are cautious that no amount of happy talk can cover.

I'd also caution against any undue hope caused by some surprisingly strong third-quarter results, particularly for retailers on the East Coast. As you'll recall, Hurricane Sandy blew through town last year at the end of October, causing widespread destruction and leaving many stores closed for days, if not weeks. Wal-Mart suffered $36 million in damage as a result of the storm and more than 200 Macy's and Bloomingdale's stores were shut because of its ravaging effects. As a result, retailers will be able to post some comparatively better numbers, though if looked at more broadly, we'll see they're still weak.

As Wal-Mart points out, it does manage its inventory all the time, taking from here and putting there as most retailers do, but having to cut inventory in many different places going into the biggest sales season of the year suggests there's still good reason to be worried.

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