Sometimes you just have to tip your hat to Fred Hickey. The editor of the High-Tech Strategist noted a year ago that companies' summer quarters were being pumped up by the coincidence between American consumers receiving federal tax rebate checks and the back-to-school season. Hickey noted that there would be no tax check coming in this year, said that the refinancing boom and its resultant liquidity would be long gone, and predicted that the back-to-school season this year would be lousy. Of course, technology largely being Hickey's bailiwick, he was talking primarily about the consumer electronics and PC companies such as Dell (NASDAQ:DELL), as well as the retailers that offer them, most notably Best Buy (NYSE:BBY).

But money is money, spending is spending, and back-to-school is back-to-school. And companies such as Costco (NASDAQ:COST) and Wal-Mart (NYSE:WMT) are turning in at best anemic results for the important August sales month. Wal-Mart sees its sales coming in at 2-4% higher than last year, much lower gains than expected. Costco turned in same-store sales gains of 4%, substantially lower than the 7.5% that was expected. As a counterpoint, Target (NYSE:TGT) turned in a 1.8% gain, which was substantially lower than the other two companies but at the high end of expectations. The market works in strange ways sometimes. Overall sales, as tabulated by the International Council of Shopping Centers, climbed 1.2% -- way below what was expected a few weeks ago.

There are, of course, easy targets for blame. Hurricane Charley, for one, is an easy scapegoat (and certainly did have some impact). Spiking prices at the pump, similarly, took a bite out of consumers' spending budgets. But these elements weren't surprises. If they were truly complicit to the degree suggested, then their impact should have been baked in. I think that Hickey's point -- one I made more generically long ago -- is more germane: Consumers are running low on money, and the sources that helped push them along a year ago have dried up. Watch closely for the earnings reports coming from the consumer technology companies: This could be a very interesting quarter, and not in a good way.

Bill Mann owns shares of Costco. Get in early on the newest Fool newsletter, Inside Value. Each month editor Philip Durell presents "buying dollars for 50 cents" kind of ideas. A free trial is buta clickaway!