Retailers see consumers hit by higher prices

By Martinne Geller

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Higher costs for gasoline, food and clothing are crimping the fledgling U.S. economic recovery, especially for lower-income consumers, earnings reports from several retailers showed on Tuesday.

Executives at industry leader Wal-Mart Stores Inc <WMT.N> said their customers were showing pronounced signs of living paycheck-to-paycheck as sales at U.S. discount stores open at least a year have fallen for two straight years.

"Rising gas prices, high unemployment and increasing inflation continue to be the most important issues facing our customers today," Bill Simon, chief executive of Wal-Mart's U.S. stores, said on a recorded message for investors.

At Wal-Mart's Sam's Club unit, where members have an average income above $75,000, same-store sales excluding fuel rose 4.2 percent, 1.2 percentage points above the high end of a company forecast.

Richard Hastings, a consumer strategist at Global Hunter Securities, said the differing performance of Wal-Mart's supercenters and Sam's Club was more evidence that higher-income consumers are not cutting back as much, while lower-income consumers, who are more burdened by higher gas prices, are still trying hard to save.

"Gas inflation intensifies the natural bifurcation in the consumer economy ... and recently ... the bifurcation worsened a lot," Hastings said, adding that his overall outlook for the consumer economy was not bad.

"Our opinion is that the consumer is in stable-to-good shape with a pocket of difficulty in the lower-income households," he said.

Top home-improvement retailer Home Depot Inc <HD.N> said its key spring selling season had started out weak as the housing slump remains entrenched and cold weather cut into outdoor projects.

Even low-priced clothing retailer TJX Cos Inc <TJX.N> reported lower earnings, although weakness in Europe and the closing of a business unit were more to blame. U.S. sales at stores open at least a year rose 4 percent at its T.J. Maxx and Marshalls chains.

"Customer traffic continues to be up over significant prior-year increases, which reinforces to us that value remains top-of-mind for consumers," said Carol Meyrowitz, chief executive officer of TJX, an off-priced retailer that buys excess merchandise and sells it at a discount.

Last week, the U.S. Labor Department said inflation had hit a 2-1/2 year high in April due to considerable increases in prices of food and fuel since March.

The average U.S. price for a gallon of gasoline hit $4 earlier this month.

Also on Tuesday, computer manufacturer Hewlett-Packard Co <HPQ.N> slashed its profit outlook, hurt by a sluggish consumer PC market and the impact of Japan's earthquake and tsunami.

But there were some bright spots for retailers that cater to more well-heeled consumers.

Upscale department store operator Saks Inc <SKS.N> reported a higher quarterly profit as it sold more items at full-price, saying a rebound in the financial markets had spurred sales of luxury goods.

Wal-Mart shares fell 1.1 percent to $55.45 in midday trading, while TJX was down 3.9 percent at $52.19. Home Depot rose 1 percent to $37.37, and Saks fell 0.1 percent to $11.28.

(Additional reporting by Brad Dorfman in Detroit and Jessica Wohl in Chicago; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn and Gunna Dickson)