NEW YORK -- It was supposed to be a great holiday shopping season. Many investors had expected department stores to enjoy robust sales in light of a U.S. economy buoyed by low unemployment, higher wages, strong consumer confidence and cheap gas.

So when Macy's and Kohl's reported lackluster numbers on Thursday, they were taken aback, sending retail stocks into a tailspin and calling into question whether such mall-based chains can compete in a changing landscape where shoppers are shifting more of their spending online.

Macy's saw only a slight increase of 1.1 percent in sales during November-December at stores opened at least year. And while sales were strong during Black Friday and Cyber Monday, the company said sales fell off noticeably until the week of Christmas.

Meanwhile, Kohl's reported a small sales growth that showed a dramatic slowdown from a year ago. Comparable sales rose 1.2 percent, versus 6.9 percent in the previous year.

Shares of Macy's plummeted nearly 18 percent Thursday, suffering its worst one-day decline. Kohl's stock closed down nearly 5 percent. Even Target's stock took a hit, falling nearly 3 percent despite showing strong holiday sales.

Adding to the uncertainty is that investors will not be getting December's monthly retail sales data next week from the Commerce Department if the government shutdown is still in effect, as most observers expect. Saunders said investors are also worried that a recovery among traditional stores like Macy's is losing momentum, raising concerns that they might have to ramp up investments even more to increase sales.

Target, on the other hand, bucked the trend by posting strong online growth in November and December. Merchandise ordered online and picked up at stores surged 60 percent. Those sales are key to Target's campaign to hold online retailers like Amazon at bay, particularly during the competitive holiday season, because shoppers can dodge shipping fees.

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