NEW YORK — Three days after its chief executive officer described Dillard’s fourth-quarter performance as “shockingly bad,” the firm reported first-quarter profits that, exclusive of special items, were just a fraction of year-ago’s levels.

However, the Little Rock, Ark.-based department store operator was able to report a profit versus a loss for the quarter. It registered net income for the 13 weeks ended May 3 of $24.3 million, or 29 cents a diluted share, compared with a loss of $472.2 million, or $5.56, in the year-ago quarter. However, the year-ago loss included a $530.3 million impairment charge because of an accounting change and the most recent quarter included a $10 million aftertax gain from the sale of its interest in Sunrise Mall and its associated center in Brownsville, Tex., and a $7.9 million aftertax credit from the resolution of certain liabilities originally recorded in conjunction with the purchase of Mercantile Stores Co. Inc.

Stripping away these items, first-quarter earnings would have been $6.4 million versus year-ago profits of $58.1 million.

Sales for the quarter fell by 5 percent to $1.81 billion from $1.91 billion, while comparable-store sales dropped 5 percent. According to the retailer, its worst-performing month in the quarter was March, in which sales plummeted by 13 percent and comps declined by 12 percent. Sales in accessories, shoes and lingerie performed best during the first quarter, while the women’s and junior categories were slightly below trend. Sales in the men’s business were below average.

The company said gross margin for the 13 weeks declined because of “significantly higher markdown levels” as it worked to control inventory levels amid weaker consumer demand.

On Saturday, as reported, William Dillard 2nd, ceo, told the annual meeting that a “shockingly bad” fourth quarter in 2002 severely hampered the year’s results.

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