The market has put a two-month rally on hold amid concern that an economic recovery won't come as fast as once hoped. The disappointing retail sales report added to investors' uneasiness.
The Commerce Department said retail sales fell 0.4 percent. Economists had forecast sales would be flat for the month. March sales figures were revised lower as well, to a decline of 1.3 percent from a previous estimate of 1.1 percent.
Consumer spending accounts for about two-thirds of economic activity. Without improved spending, the economy is more likely to remain mired in a recession.
In morning trading, the Dow Jones industrial average fell 141.29, or 1.67 percent, to 8,327.82. The broader Standard & Poor's 500 index fell 15.14, or 1.67 percent, to 893.21, while the Nasdaq composite index declined 24.92, or 1.45 percent, to 1,691.00.
The market is "unwilling to absorb anymore good news, so it's absorbing some bad news," Joe Clark, managing director of Financial Enhancement Group in Anderson, Ind., said of the retail sales data and the market's pullback in recent days. "The consumer is not broke, just unwilling to spend in some areas."
However, Clark did note the market is unlikely to test the lows seen in early March before the rally began.