Unemployment hasn't been so low in years, wages are rising, consumer confidence is high and gasoline is cheap, all creating high expectations for department stores this holiday season.
That's not what investors got in sales numbers released Thursday.
Department stores fell sharply before the opening bell, with bellwether Macy's down nearly 19 percent after posting worse-than-expected sales in the period leading up to the holiday.
The Cincinnati company also cut its full-year earnings and sales forecasts after saying that same-store sales rose about 1 percent during November-December. Chairman and CEO Jeff Gennette said in a prepared statement that things started out strong during Black Friday and Cyber Week, but sales fell off noticeably until the week of Christmas.
Macy's Inc. lowered its fiscal 2018 earnings outlook to $3.95 to $4 per share from its prior per-share earnings for $4.10 to $4.30 per share. That's well below the per-share projections of $4.23 from industry analysts.
Shares of Kohl's plunged as well after reporting holiday sales fell sharply from a year earlier. Comparable-store sales rose 1.2 percent, compared with 6.9 percent in the previous year.
Shares of Kohl's Corp., based just outside of Milwaukee, fell 10 percent.
Earlier indications had been fueling optimism about the performance this year during the holiday.
In late December, Mastercard SpendingPulse, which tracked spending online and in stores across all payment types, said its numbers showed a 5.1 percent jump in retail sales between Nov. 1 and Dec. 24. And it said online sales continued to grow, up more than 19 percent from a year ago.
The ongoing rebound expected from department stores has apparently not materialized as expected, and the S&P sector that tracks them quickly became the worst performer of the day.
The dour sales numbers follow a report from J.C. Penney Co. earlier this week, which said comparable store sales slid 3.5 percent drop. Sears is teetering close to liquidation this week in bankruptcy court.
Target bucked the trend, posting strong online growth. Goods ordered online and picked up at stores surged 60 percent in in November and December.
Those online sales, either picked up inside or through the company's curbside pickup service, are key in Target's campaign to hold online retailers like Amazon.com at bay, particularly during the competitive holiday season, because shoppers can dodge shipping fees.
Target Corp. said Thursday that sales at stores open at least a year increased 5.7 percent in the period, up from 3.4 percent a year earlier. The boost was mostly due to traffic. By category, the strongest growth was in toys, baby and seasonal gifts.
Comparable online sales climbed 29 percent.
Target still expects full-year adjusted earnings in a range of $5.30 to $5.50 per share. Analysts polled by FactSet foresee $5.39 per share. The maintained outlook may have disappointed investors, as Target's stock fell 1.6 percent before the opening bell.