NEW YORK — Improvements at Lane Bryant, the most prominent of Charming Shoppes’ trio of businesses, along with cost controls ignited the plus-sized specialty retailer’s bottom line in the fourth quarter.

Profits for the retailer, based in Bensalem, Pa., more than doubled to $10.1 million, or 9 cents a diluted share, which scorched past Wall Street’s forecast by 6 cents, according to First Call. Results represented a 161.6 percent increase over year-ago profits of $3.9 million, or 3 cents. Last year’s results include a pre-tax restructuring credit of $3.5 million, or 2 cents.

Sales for the quarter tapered off 2.6 percent to $585.6 million from $601.2 million while same-store sales declined 1 percent. By division, Lane Bryant proved to be the workhorse with sales increasing 6.3 percent to $251 million from $236 million in the same period last year, and comps showing a 1 percent gain.

Dorrit Bern, chairman, chief executive and president of Charming Shoppes, told investors on a morning conference call that there are plenty of profit and margin opportunities at Lane Bryant.

Management said it will alter Lane Bryant’s marketing plans by transferring some of its direct-mail pieces into magalogues and highlight its improved and broader product offerings. “What we wanted to be able to do is tell the customer what great products we have in the store,” said Gayle Coolick, director of investor relations, “and that we have great new, clear offerings that she hasn’t seen in many years. It’s a real story and a real turnaround in Lane Bryant.”

Still, Dorothy Lakner, an analyst with CIBC World Markets, said Lane Bryant’s performance in the quarter was disappointing, citing a casual business, which is an important element of spring and summer sales, that hasn’t been performing well.

Meanwhile the retailer’s other divisions, Catherine’s Plus Sizes and Fashion Bug, showed softness. Catherine’s, which has 466 stores, posted flat fourth-quarter sales of $75 million along with flat comps. For Fashion Bug, which has 1,051 doors, sales fell 10.8 percent to $257 million in the fourth quarter from $288 million in the prior year with comps declining 4 percent.Following a disappointing performance with declining comps starting in the second half of 2002 and extending throughout much of 2003, management implemented a number of merchandising and marketing changes throughout the past year, including expanding its careerwear with more mix-and-match separates and offering more styles. The company also introduced an activewear line and broadened its intimates section by introducing a yoga and spa collection.

As reported, Charming Shoppes, which trails only Gap and Limited Brands in apparel volume among U.S. specialty stores, last Friday said for the three months ending May 1 that diluted earnings per share are projected to be in the range of 11 to 12 cents, considerably higher than the 8 cents a share the company reported in last year’s first quarter. Wall Street’s current first-quarter estimate is 12 cents. Sales for the period are forecast to be $585 million, a 3.7 percent gain over year-ago revenues of $564.3 million. Same-store sales, meanwhile, are forecast to grow in the low- to mid-single-digits, much improved over last year when they declined 6 percent.

In 2003, the retailer reported earnings of $40.6 million, or 35 cents a diluted share, including an $11.5 million, or 6 cents, pre-tax expense related to its cost-reduction program. Results reversed a year-ago loss of $2.8 million, or 1 cent, which includes costs related to an accounting change.

Excluding the change and including a $4.8 million, or 2 cent, pre-tax restructuring credit, earnings were $46.3 million, or 39 cents. Sales for the 12 months decreased 5.3 percent to $2.29 billion from $2.41 billion in the prior year.

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