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Amid the noise of the U.S. financial markets, one sector is quietly falling behind. So-called “one dollar” discount retailers, or dollar stores, have been conspicuous laggards in the current equities cycle. In fact, dollar stores enjoyed only a temporary respite from the “Trump rally.” Now, it seems as if they’re struggling to stay afloat.

Two of the most popular dollar stores — Dollar Tree, Inc. (NASDAQ:DLTR) and Dollar General Corp. (NYSE:DG) — are both underwater in terms of year-to-date performances. DLTR stock is the least affected between the two, down nearly 2%, whereas DG stock has shed a more disconcerting 7% in the markets. Both suffered severe choppiness and volatility in 2016, and the situation does not seem very promising for the rest of 2017.

On the surface level, the bearishness towards discount retailers might be thought of as bullish for the underlying consumer economy. After all, dollar stores only sell the cheap stuff. If sales are falling at discount retailers, then logically, one might assume that sales are increasing in higher-premium stores.

But how does one explain the severe fallout of Target Corporation (NYSE:TGT)? Of course, they’re not a luxury outlet by any stretch of the imagination. However, they are a far cry away from the aisles of dollar stores and other discount retailers. Yet TGT stock is down 26% YTD — a shockingly bad figure.

Even the trendy, upper-class stores are hurting “bigly.” For example, Whole Foods Market, Inc. (NASDAQ:WFM) is in a similar plight with Dollar General, shedding about 7% YTD. Serving the affluent consumer with organic foods and imported products has not been a formula for consistent success.

This sets up an extremely worrying proposition — neither the cheapo dollar stores nor the high-end retailers are making much money. And corporations like Target, which serve as the “in-betweeners,” are also getting gutted. Is no one in the retail sector doing well?

Of course, somebody has to be making the money. But the more important point is that competition is extremely fierce among all categories of retailers. For the broader consumer economy, the plight of discount retailers is the indicator to which we all need to pay attention.

First, dollar stores are failing in the financial markets for reasons other than consumer flight to more expensive retailers. This paints an ugly picture that American families may be hurting more than we realize or appreciate.

Second, because discount retailers are in a cutthroat business, one or more of them could fail on a permanent basis. Elimination of the competition, though, would lead to higher prices for the consumer. That could become a knockout blow, particularly when the economy is so disjointed as it is.

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