The Dow Jones Industrials (DJINDICES:^DJI) rose 41 points today but still suffered substantial losses on the week. Technology stocks were in the news for an unexpected boost in PC sales that led to more positive outlooks for chipmakers and collateral benefits throughout the industry. But big retailers held the Dow back from further gain, with Wal-Mart (NYSE:WMT) and Home Depot (NYSE:HD) among the index's weakest performers.
Wal-Mart dropped 0.6% as investors continue to question whether the retail giant can turn around its struggling business both in the U.S. and around the world. Wal-Mart has put together a number of efforts to bolster its overseas growth, with plans to increase its Internet-retail presence in India later this summer and expectations for Latin American growth in e-commerce as well. Yet even as the Dow component acknowledges the competitive threat that online-only retailers present, Wal-Mart also must maximize the value of its massive retail-space footprint. Efforts in the U.S. to establish stores of varying sizes to meet the needs of particular localities could lead to more frequent visits and better sales overall. But Wal-Mart, even in a week in which some worries about the future of economic growth emerged, isn't inspiring the confidence among shareholders that it did during 2008's recession.
Home Depot, meanwhile, fell about half a percent. The most recent figures on retail sales earlier this week showed that the home-improvement sector continued to power forward, albeit at a slower pace than it did last summer. The pickup in sales from April to May signaled the hoped-for rebound for Home Depot and its peers after a long and unusually cold winter season, and it'll be especially important for Home Depot to take maximum advantage of the pent-up demand among its customers as long as it lasts. With clouds on the horizon in the housing market from an anticipated rise in mortgage rates, it's possible that Home Depot will have to overcome a sluggish housing sector in order to keep growing over the long run.
Consumers drive a good portion of the overall U.S. economy, and poor performance from the major retail stocks in the Dow Jones Industrials underscores the importance of healthy levels of activity in the broader economy. Dow investors should keep an eye on Home Depot and Wal-Mart to see if they avoid the full brunt of a future downturn -- or instead end up causing one.