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Retailers ringing the recession alarm

Even industry executives can't figure out what's wrong with retail.

After posting their steepest quarterly same-store sales declines since the recession, management at both Kohl's and Macy's said they were scratching their heads over the disconnect between the improving economy, and a pullback in traffic and spending at their stores in the first quarter.

During a conference call with analysts on Thursday, Kohl's CEO Kevin Mansell said the company is having a "hard time determining" how much of its 3.9 percent comparable-sales drop was related to company-specific issues versus the broader economy.

In that vein, Macy's CFO Karen Hoguet on Wednesday told analysts that the management team at the department store, where comparable sales slipped 5.6 percent during the quarter, was "scratching our heads" regarding the chain's soft results.

"I would say that we too are somewhat puzzled by the data that we're seeing on the consumer and the traffic were seeing," she said.

Indeed, though the sales performance at these two retailers is conjuring up unwelcome memories of the most recent recession, the state of the consumer has substantially improved. In April, the nation's unemployment rate held steady at 5 percent, half of what it was during the throes of the recession in 2009. Stock markets — though they've had a shaky run in 2016 — are well off their troughs during the crisis. The housing market also remains on more solid footing.

"I don't think they're [consumers] of the same mindset," said Ken Perkins, president of Retail Metrics. "The sky really was falling in '09."

That, then, begs the question: Why are some retailers' sales performances reminiscent of that era?

Economists pointed to several issues that are holding back spending on traditional merchandise. For one, though consumers are no longer in the dire...