NEW YORK — Maternity retailer Mothers Work said sales expanded in March, but said legal expenses would further erode the fourth quarter’s already reduced profit profile.

The Philadelphia-based specialty retailer, which operates 949 stores under the Motherhood Maternity, A Pea in the Pod and Mimi Maternity nameplates, said comparable-store sales for March rose 1.3 percent compared with a 5 percent drop in February as overall sales extended 8.6 percent to $46.9 million from $43.2 million in last year’s comparable period. The firm said the Easter calendar shift negatively impacted March comps by 2 percentage points.

For the second quarter ended March 31, MW said comps increased 0.2 percent and total sales for the three months increased 6.1 percent to $111.3 million from $104.9 million. Net sales exceeded the firm’s downwardly revised sales guidance of $111 million from $114 million.

"We are encouraged by our significantly improved sales performance for the month of March compared to February," Rebecca Matthias, president and chief operating officer, said in a statement.

Matthias noted spring sales had picked up in the later part of the month with the arrival of warmer weather in some parts of the country.

However, MW warned it now expects earnings for the second quarter to fall to between 4 and 7 cents a diluted share, including a charge of $800,000, or 9 cents, related to a legal settlement. On March 6, MW said it was had lowered its quarterly guidance to 15 cents from 22 to 27 cents, based on lower February sales. The earlier forecasts didn’t include an adjustment for the settlement, which the firm didn’t initially expect to realize in the second quarter. MW officials weren’t available to comment on details of the settlement late Tuesday.

For fiscal 2003, MW said it anticipates earnings to be between $2.50 and $2.60, compared with its previous guidance of $2.60 to $2.70. In 2002, MW earned $2.32 a share.

MW expects to report second-quarter financial results on April 22 .

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