c.2013 New York Times News Service

c.2013 New York Times News Service

A lot of Americans are still spending their money only on socks and other essentials, highlighting the disparity between younger and poorer consumers and those who are benefiting from the economic recovery.

Major retailers, like Wal-Mart and Kohl’s, that cater to budget-conscious customers with lower incomes cited sluggish sales this week as they decreased their annual forecasts. Macy’s, with a slightly higher-income clientele, did not meet analysts’ expectations for the first time in 25 quarters.

But even upper-income consumers do not seem to be spending as freely as some hoped. While Nordstrom’s, which reaches a middle- to luxury-end market, reported a higher-than-expected quarterly profit Thursday, it too said sales “remained softer than anticipated” and lowered its forecast.

The latest sales reports painted a bleak picture for a sizable swath of the retail sector even as other economic indicators, like an increase in auto loans, showed signs of consumer confidence.

“There is a certain segment of the population that is faring well in this economy and have seen their net worth rise sharply with stock and housing market gains,” said Ken Perkins, president of Retail Metrics. “Then there is the much larger segment of Americans that are working in low-wage jobs, part-time jobs, that are struggling to make ends meet and are living paycheck to paycheck. They are not spending beyond necessities.”

In a call with reporters Thursday, Wal-Mart’s chief financial officer, Charles M. Holley Jr., said there was “a general reluctance of customers to spend on discretionary items right now.”

As the back-to-school season reaches its peak, some retailers are not optimistic that they could see a big revival among shoppers.

“The expectations through the end of the year are really through the lens of the cautious consumer,” Holley said.

A few major factors have impeded progress for a lot of Americans as the country wades out of the recession. Job-market growth has been decent, but the jobs added have not.

“A lot of the gains have been in extremely low-paying sectors: retail, health care, temporary employment,” said Joshua Shapiro, chief economist at MFR.

When it is not full-time work, he said, benefits are low to nonexistent.

“If you dig below the surface, it’s not that wonderful of a picture,” he said.