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Walmart’s doing fine. But its shoppers? Not so much

Is Walmart the big blue canary in the US’s economic mineshaft? The case has been made that it is, with even the Federal Reserve using its performance to divine labor and consumption trends.

Which is why the leaked Walmart email that revealed the “total disaster” of February sales had everyone, and not just its shareholders, freaking out.

But Walmart’s earnings announcement this morning should have calmed the mass freakout—for now, at least. The “total disaster”? Here’s what that was about: “February sales started slower than planned, due in large part, to the delay in income tax refunds,” said  CEO Bill Simon. “We began seeing increased tax refund check activity late last week in our stores, resulting in a more normalized weekly sales pattern for this time of the year,” he added.

So, relax, everyone—total disaster averted.

But don’t relax completely. The company’s fourth-quarter earnings painted a grim picture of the state of US retail. Walmart’s store traffic fell during the last quarter, despite the fact that time period included holiday shopping. And its executives already see signs of more conservative spending due to economic pressures.

Of the major points of concern here, tax seems to be a big one. In the first bullet of its release, the company attributed its 2012 performance in part to the benefit of the American Taxpayer Relief Act. Then Rosalind Brewer, CEO of Sam’s Club, a retail warehouse club owned by Walmart, then explicitly cited “higher payroll income taxes” as a cause of more cautious spending. And then there was Simon’s mention of those delayed income tax refunds.

Of course, companies love to scapegoat Washington when business isn’t going so well. But blaming taxes isn’t a regular habit of Walmart around earnings: a quick scrape of the last couple of years of earnings statements shows that it hasn’t brought tax policy up recently.

We’re not done yet, though: Walmart’s release gave us one more reason to fret about the state of the American consumer. And that’s gas prices. As the American Automobile Association reports, US fuel prices at the pump have risen around 14% in the last month, and are up around 5.5% from last year. Walmart’s execs mentioned worries about rising fuel costs several times, along with the payroll tax and unemployment.

At least Walmart didn’t seem to think things would worsen. In their forecast, its execs said they expected sales from January to April to be “around flat,”

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