NEW YORK — Softer fourth-quarter results moderated Christopher & Banks Corp.’s year of double-digit gains on both the top and bottom lines.

The retail firm managed a 1.5 percent profit upswing in the quarter to $10.5 million, or 40 cents a diluted share. This compared with earnings of $10.3 million, or 39 cents, a year ago.

Prior to the after-market earnings report, investors traded down shares of the company 51 cents, or 2.4 percent, to close at $21.17 on the New York Stock Exchange.

Sales for the three months ended March 1 strengthened 15.2 percent to $95.4 million from $82.8 million a year ago. Comparable-store sales slid 6 percent.

Chairman and chief executive Bill Prange, in a statement, allowed that sales were slower than expected, but added, "We managed our inventory conservatively, thereby protecting the integrity and value of our brands."

Last year, C&B’s inventories rose 27 percent to $24.1 million from $19 million. This included merchandise for the 94 new doors opened in the just-concluded fiscal year.

However, average in-store inventory at the end of the quarter was 9.1 percent below a year ago.

For the 12 months, C&B’s bottom line registered a 17.1 percent increase to $38.5 million, or $1.45 a diluted share. This compared with the prior-year mark of $32.9 million, or $1.26.

Sales for the year logged a 22.8 percent increase to $338.8 million from $275.9 million during the previous year. Comps ascended 1 percent, making for seven straight years of same-store sales growth.

Also, C&B repurchased more than $13 million worth of its common stock last year.

"The retail environment will continue to be challenging in fiscal 2003," said Prange. "Nevertheless, we remain comfortable with our plan to open 100 new stores this year. We are confident that our continued expansion, together with our strong balance sheet and increasingly popular brands, will enable us to capitalize on any improvement in economic conditions."

The Minneapolis-based retailer currently operates 449 stores across 37 states.

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