ST. LOUIS -- The May Department Stores Co. reported earnings rose 14.4 percent in the fourth quarter and 17.9 percent in the year ended Jan. 29.

In the quarter May earned $365 million, or $1.44 per share, against $319 million, or $1.26, in the year-ago period.

Total company sales, including the department stores and Payless Shoe Source, were up 7.6 percent to $3.6 billion from $3.3 billion. May's department store division's sales rose 7.6 percent in the quarter to $3.1 billion from $2.9 billion, with same-store sales up 4.8 percent. Five Robinsons-May stores remain temporarily closed following the Los Angeles earthquake, but the company said it is working to reopen them "as quickly as possible." May's full-year earnings climbed to $711 million, or $2.77 per share, from $603 million, or $2.35, a year earlier. Total company sales were up 7.6 percent to $11 billion from $10.2 billion.

Department store sales rose 7.1 percent to $9.1 billion from $8.4 billion in 1992, while same-store sales increased 5.2 percent. David C. Farrell, May's chairman and chief executive officer, said this was the highest fourth quarter and year in the company's history for sales and earnings.

He said the company was helped by the completion of the consolidation of its department store divisions and the move of its merchandising operations to St. Louis from New York.

Farrell also pointed out that cash flow from operations topped $1 billion for the first time, up 12 percent against the year-ago level.

"The strength of its balance sheet is a significant competitive asset for achieving top line sales growth by acquisition of individual stores or groups of stores as opportunities present themselves," Farrell said.

Edward F. Johnson, an analyst at Johnson Redbook Service, said fourth-quarter earnings came in slightly higher than he had expected.

"They've done a very good job and should continue to do well, increasing their sales and improving their margins," he said.

Johnson projects 44 cents a share for the first quarter against 38 cents last year, and looks for $3.05 for 1994.

May has an aggressive five-year expansion plan calling for the addition of 100 department stores and 1,200 Payless units. In 1993, it opened 13 new department stores and 216 Payless stores.At yearend, May operated 301 department stores and 3,779 Payless stores.

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