Remember when Wal-Mart was talked about as the retailer where America shopped? At least in recent months, it looks like consumers increasingly have taken their money elsewhere.
We should be seeing Wal-Mart dominate during the all-important holiday season, but instead it has tallied terrible results. Its same-store sales fell for the first time in a decade in November, and it is forecasting anemic growth this month as well.
Blame for such missteps can't go just to the slowing U.S. economy. Wal-Mart's reputation as a difficult employer and the growing perception that it doesn't always offer the lowest prices have led consumers to shop at competitors of the world's largest retailer.
Given Wal-Mart's size and power, what it does matters. With more than 6,600 stores worldwide and sales for 2006 estimated to average out to just less than $1-billion a day, the Bentonville, Ark., discount chain has long been considered an industry and economic bellwether.
But its recent woes show a vulnerable side to this retailing behemoth. Maybe Wal-Mart's problems are just Wal-Mart's problems.
The initial take on Wall Street last week - when Wal-Mart tipped its hand that November wasn't looking good - was that the weakness was symptomatic of a slowdown in overall economic growth. The stock market sold off on the idea that the housing market correction coupled with an uncertain jobs outlook might be spurring consumers to hold off on some spending.
But for that argument to hold up, there should be other warning signs as well - and there aren't. Consumer spending has picked up in recent months as gas prices have dropped, and new retail sales show strong results from other merchants.
Rival discount chain Target Corp. tallied better-than-expected same-store sales of 5.9 percent in November. Shoppers scooped up its trendy offerings even though they bypassed them at Wal-Mart.
One big issue plaguing Wal-Mart has to do with its prices. Consumers long believed if they shopped at Wal-Mart, they got the best price. And they were willing to put up with dated stores and sloppy displays so long as they were paying less.
But this year, Wal-Mart hasn't always offered the lowest prices.
Then there is Wal-Mart's publicity problem. Two years ago, a poll of 1,800 shoppers found that 2 to 8 percent of respondents said they had stopped shopping at the retailer because of negative press. The findings came in a report to Wal-Mart by consulting firm McKinsey & Co.
That decline was before the recent onslaught of attacks from two union-backed groups, WakeUpWalMart.com and Wal-Mart Watch, which have gotten lots of media attention for taking on Wal-Mart's treatment of workers so publicly. Wal-Mart bashing was also popular on the campaign trail during this election season.
Of course, no one should write off Wal-Mart yet. It is big. It is strong. It is resilient. It is in many of the nation's neighborhoods, catering to many of the nation's shoppers.