The shares of a number of U.S. retailers fell Thursday after Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Macy's Inc. painted a somber picture of consumer spending.

Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer, reported Thursday second-quarter results that missed Wall Street estimates. It cut its annual profit and revenue outlook and said that it expects a tough economy at home and abroad to continue to squeeze its low-income shoppers through the rest of the year.

That follows Macy's disappointing quarterly earnings report Wednesday, which it blamed on shoppers' reluctance to spend. The department store operator also lowered its expectations for the year. And discount retailer Kohl's profit fell in its second quarter on higher expenses but met market expectations; it trimmed its outlook for the year.

The reports from the bellwether retailers raised red flags for many investors at the start of the key back-to-school season.

Consumer spending appears to still be shaky as people deal with the reality of an extended economic recovery.

While jobs are easier to get and the turnaround in the housing market is gaining momentum, the improvements have not been enough to sustain spending for most Americans, who are juggling tepid wage gains and higher costs of living. On top of that, Americans are still trying to digest higher payroll taxes that went into effect Jan. 1.

"We fail to understand where the recovery in consumer spending seems to be that the market is talking about," Janney Capital Markets analyst David Strasser said in a research note. The analyst said retailers like Wal-Mart are reporting a much bleaker picture than some government reports on retail sales had painted.

Another Janney analyst, Adrienne Tennant, said that she expects a tough quarter and conservative guidance from many of the other retailers that have yet to report their results for the most recent quarter. She gave an "underweight" rating on the softline sector, which includes sellers of clothing, bedding and accessories, also noting a lack of newness in fashion and a highly promotional environment that may weigh on some retailer's performance.

Here's a look at how some retailers' stocks fared by early afternoon Thursday:

—Wal-Mart, down $1.96, a more than 2 percent drop, to $74.44.

—Macy's, down 26 cents to $46.07.

—Kohl's Corp., up $2.28 to $53.12.

—Target Corp., down $1.01 to $69.02.

—J.C. Penney Co. Inc, up 55 cents to $13.66.

—Urban Outfitters Inc., down 57 cents to $40.20.

—American Eagle Outfitters Inc., down 40 cents to $16.49.