If there was one lesson from this year's holiday shopping season, it is that many traditional retailers are having to work a lot harder to persuade Americans to open their pocketbooks.
A lot of stores had to discount heavily to eke out a modest increase in sales, likely squeezing profit margins in the process.
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Some improvement in the U.S. economy and declines in the jobless rate, plus gains in stock and home prices, are failing to resonate with many Americans whose incomes are struggling to catch up to where they were before the financial crisis.
NYC customers outside Macy's Herald Square store on Thanksgiving 2013.Getty Images
But to many retail experts and economists there are other less cyclical factors at play. Consumers are spending more. Government figures show monthly personal consumption has risen for seven straight months, with November's outlay marking the fastest increase in five months. But they just are not spending in the shopping malls like they used to.
And that means that, even if the economy picks up significantly, retailers of many products could still struggle.
"We are in a something of an evolutionary process, said Bill Martin, founder of data firm ShopperTrak, which monitors foot traffic in about 60,000 retail stores. Americans are spending more online and becoming more careful about what they buy, he said.
Some of this has been unfolding over a long period, although the changes might be picking up pace.
For example, department stores have found themselves on the wrong end of trends for some time. According to data compiled by Reuters, they now capture just $3.37 of every $100 of U.S. retail spending, the lowest since records began in 1992, when the number was nearly $9.
Some of that is explained by the rise of Wal-Mart Stores Inc and other big box discount retailers. But the pace of decline has picked up, with department stores losing about 0.28 percentage points of market share at an annualized rate between 2002 and 2011, compared with 0.22 in the prior 10 years.
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The problem is two-fold. The middle class consumers to whom the likes of JC Penney Co Inc and Kohl's Corp cater have struggled with stagnant wages and a payroll tax rise, prompting them to reduce spending on apparel, said Scott Tuhy, a retail analyst at Moody's Investors Service in New York.
People have also gravitated toward spending on services such as travel – airline ticket prices and hotel room rates are up – as well as movie downloads and other content for their TVs, smart phones and tablets. Prices to attend live sports events, theme parks, movies and rock concerts have also been rising.
In addition, increasing healthcare costs have been eating up discretionary income, with many employers seeking higher contributions from their staff.