Sears Net Climbs

<CS:BOLD>NEW YORK -- Fourth-quarter earnings came in on target, and inventories lean, as Sears, Roebuck & Co. got down to the business of fixing its more than 800 full-line stores.<BR><BR>For the 13 weeks ended Dec. 29, profits advanced 11.8...

NEW YORK — Fourth-quarter earnings came in on target, and inventories lean, as Sears, Roebuck & Co. got down to the business of fixing its more than 800 full-line stores.

For the 13 weeks ended Dec. 29, profits advanced 11.8 percent to $494 million, or $1.52 cents a diluted share, compared with $442 million, or $1.32, in the year-ago period. Non-comparable items related to store operation restructuring, the exit of several businesses and a litigation settlement resulted in after-tax charges of $163 million, or 50 cents a share. The year-ago period also included charges aggregating $167 million, or 50 cents a share, after taxes. Exclusive of these items, net income rose 2.8 percent to $657 million, or $2.02 a share, up from $639 million, or $1.91, a year ago.

Investors gave the results their stamp of approval and traded up shares of Sears $1.23 to $52.70 on the New York Stock Exchange Thursday.

Total revenues, however, slid 1.1 percent to $12.24 billion from $12.37 billion a year ago.

Operating income for the retail segment — encompassing more than five square miles of full-line and specialty stores — plumped up 5.9 percent to $662 million, on sales of $9.49 billion, a 3.4 percent drop. The credit and financial services business posted a 25.3 percent jump in operating profits.

On a conference call, chairman and chief executive Alan Lacy noted, “While we’ve been spending a lot of time and energy on our full-line stores over this past year, the fact that our other portfolio businesses are performing well significantly increases our flexibility.”

The full year, he said, “represents a solid beginning” in the Sears effort to put a new face on its core full-line retail business. In the next few months, a shift to centralized cash wraps and improvements in merchandise positioning, sight lines, navigation and promotional signage will be implemented. A new catch-all private label brand for men, women and children will bow in stores this fall.

Even before laying out his master turnaround plan in October, Lacy noted of the apparel segment, “We’ve made good progress in continuing to take clutter off the floor, clarify our assortments, improve product quality and improve our value proposition.” These changes helped apparel, especially juniors, during the back-to-school season. Also in ready-to-wear the “fashionability and value of our Crossroads brand” improved, helping apparel sales in the holiday season which ended in a flurry of cold-weather driven sales, said the ceo.

While minor editing of the private label brands has started already, Lacy said Sears has also removed “an awful lot of market labels.” The number of items on the floor was down about 20 percent against the prior year, he noted.

At the end of the quarter inventory in the domestic retail business had fell $545 million, or 10 percent on a first-in first-out (FIFO) basis, below year-ago levels.

On the call, Paul Liska, executive vice president and chief financial officer, noted, “We are in exceptionally good shape from an inventory point of view this year. Our clearance inventory is down 25 percent on a unit basis, which we believe is an encouraging indicator for January and spring markdown activity.”

Retail and consultant Walter Loeb noted, “If they can avoid markdowns, then they can probably be very profitable this spring.” He also said the consumer, “being more conservative right now, will look to Sears for value.”

For the 12 months, unadjusted earnings plummeted 45.3 percent to $735 million, or $2.24 a diluted share, from $1.34 billion, or $3.88, in the previous year. Overall revenues crawled forward 0.3 percent to $41.08 billion from $40.94 billion in 2000.