Many economists expect the U.S. recession to end in the second half of this year, but companies catering to consumers showed on Wednesday that the prolonged downturn and rising unemployment are taking a toll on business in the near term.

Capital One Financial Corp, a leading issuer of MasterCard and Visa credit cards, said U.S. credit card defaults rose in March as unemployment soared, while Burger King Holdings Inc said it saw a surprise drop in customer visits to its hamburger restaurants in March.

Meanwhile, the head of Wal-Mart Stores Inc, the world's biggest retailer, said he does not anticipate a quick end to the recession.

There's still a lot of stress, Wal-Mart CEO Mike Duke said on a taped interview on NBC's Today Show.

It's not a 'V' recession, where we're just going to bounce out and come back, he said.

The latest comments come a day after a government report showed that sales at U.S. retailers unexpectedly fell 1.1 percent in March. On Wednesday, the Labor Department said U.S. consumer prices fell unexpectedly in March, recording their first 12-month drop in nearly 54 years, as slumping demand pushed down energy and food costs.

The data underscore the severity of the U.S. recession, and show consumers are keeping a tight grip on their wallets.

Duke said that by the end of the month, just before traditional paydays for many workers, customers are left with only a few dollars to spend. He said the downturn will lead to a sustained change in the way that families live.

Capital One said the annualized net charge-off rate for U.S. credit cards -- debts the company believes it will never collect -- rose to 9.33 percent in March from 8.06 percent in February. The rate for loans at least 30 days delinquent dipped slightly, to 5.08 percent from 5.1 percent.

The company, due to report its first-quarter results next week, forecast more credit losses this year as debt-burdened American consumers struggle with unemployment, which hit a 25-year high in March.

Its shares fell 7.6 percent, while card issuer American Express Co dropped 2.2 percent and financial services company Citigroup fell 7.5 percent.

Meanwhile, Burger King, best known for its Whopper hamburgers, said it faced an unanticipated traffic slowdown in March across most company-owned restaurants, which hurt its margins for the quarter.

The declines were steepest in Mexico and Germany. Burger King said it has taken steps to woo customers in those two markets, which include relaunching a value menu in Germany.

So far in April, the hamburger chain said same-store sales have improved, mostly due to the shift of the Easter holiday into the month and to efforts in Germany and Mexico.

Its shares dropped 14 percent, while competitor McDonald's Corp traded down 1.5 percent.

The latest Blue Chip Economic Indicators survey of private economists, released last week, showed that 86 percent of economists surveyed thought the recession would end in the second half of this year.

Much of the anticipated turnaround in the U.S. economy, now in its 16th month of recession, would be driven by some improvement in consumer spending, housing, business inventories and exports. Yet above-trend growth was not expected until the second half of 2010.

The official arbiter of when recessions begin and end, the National Bureau of Economic Research, tends to wait many months before officially announcing the turn in the business cycle, so it could be 2010 before the determination is made.

(Additional reporting by Aarthi Sivaraman and Juan Lagorio in New York and Lucia Mutikani and Emily Kaiser in Washington, editing by Gerald E. McCormick)