Five big-name retailers will report earnings this week, and most need decisive wins to keep investors - the sector only rose a measly 2.6% last month.
retail stocks to watch
- Retail Stocks to Watch Now
- How the "Wal-Mart Syndrome" Pushes Millions More Onto Food Stamps
- What Wal-Mart's Dismal Sales Mean for These Retail Stocks
- Retail Stocks to Buy: Time to Profit from Lifestyles of the Rich
- Can Retail Stocks Survive the Death of the Shopping Mall?
Call it the "Wal-Mart Syndrome".
Entire industries -- such as low-end retailers like Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (NYSE: WMT) and fast food chains like McDonald's Inc. (NYSE: MCD) - pump up their profits by paying employees extremely low wages.
But thousands of Americans who need to support a household on such low wages - either the federally mandated minimum wage of $7.25 or just a bit above it - can only do so with public assistance.
In other words, with the help of welfare.
While we showed you last week how high-end retail stocks were soaring right now, on the flipside of things is Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (NYSE: WMT).
A Wal-Mart executive offered a candid view of just how bad sales have been of late in an e-mail to other company execs obtained by Bloomberg News.
"In case you haven't seen a sales report these days, February [month-to-date] sales are a total disaster," Jerry Murray, VP of finance and logistics, said in the Feb. 12 e-mail. "[It's] the worst start to a month I have seen in my seven years with the company."
The retail giant's woes stem from a confluence of factors hurting sales: the 2% increase in the payroll tax, the recent surge in gas and food prices and consumer confidence levels sinking to their lowest since 2011.
CNBC stock picker Jim Cramer calls it a "Great Gatsby market," the growing divide between the rich and the rest of us.
And you can profit from it - by buying stocks of retailers that cater to the rich.
That's because these luxury retailers don't feel the pinch of economic hardships among their rich customer base nearly as much as lower-end retailers do.
Cramer says the rich can afford to buy expensive items, while much of the rest of the population struggles to get by and has less discretionary income now, partly because of the recent increase in the payroll tax and soaring gas prices.
"This is a Great Gatsby market; the rich are not like us," Cramer says.
Even if the stock market slows this year, analysts don't expect that to reduce spending among shoppers at high-end retail stores.
As consumers do less shopping in physical stores and more shopping on the Internet, retail stocks will need to evolve or face extinction.
And if tech entrepreneur Marc Andreessen is right, they don't have much time. In an interview with PandoDaily's Sarah Lacy, the co-founder of Netscape and renowned Silicon Valley venture capitalist unabashedly predicted the demise of brick-and-mortar stores by the end of the decade.
"Retail guys are going to go out of business and ecommerce will become the place everyone buys. You are not going to have a choice," Andreessen said. "Malls are going under, and there's more to come. These chains are much closer to going under than you think."
He reasons that the superior business model of online retailing will undermine brick-and-mortar rivals.
"Retail chains are a fundamentally implausible economic structure if there's a viable alternative," he says. "You combine the fixed cost of real estate with inventory, and it puts every retailer in a highly leveraged position. Few can survive a decline of 20% to 30% in revenues. It just doesn't make any sense for all this stuff to sit on shelves. There is fundamentally a better model."
As extreme as it sounds, the transition is already well under way in some retail categories.
Online retailer Amazon.com (Nasdaq: AMZN) played a major role in undermining the business of two of the country's largest bookstore chains, Borders, which went out of business in 2011, and Barnes and Noble Inc. (NYSE: BKS), which recently announced plans to close a third of its stores over the next decade.
And the popularity of online video streaming such as that offered by Netflix Inc. (Nasdaq: NFLX) torpedoed video rental giant Blockbuster, which filed for bankruptcy in 2010 and was eventually bought by Dish Network Corp. (Nasdaq: DISH).