By  on March 11, 2005

NEW YORK — For some of the regional retailers such as Dillard’s and Bon-Ton Stores, the fourth quarter of 2004 was spent on fine-tuning merchandise mixes as a way to differentiate themselves in the market. Based on quarterly results of these companies Thursday, most succeeded.

Meanwhile, specialty retailers kept up their dizzying pace of delivering robust sales and earnings.

After the bell, for example, Aeropostale Inc. said net income in the quarter ended Jan. 29 soared 28.4 percent to $35.3 million, or 62 cents a diluted share, from $27.5 million, or 47 cents, in the prior year, on sales that rose 20 percent to $327.1 million from $272.6 million.

Julian Geiger, chairman and chief executive officer, said the firm’s “continued focus on gross margin improvement and operating margin expansion enabled us to translate our 20 percent gain in sales into a significantly higher increase in earnings per share.”

In the department store sector, Dillard’s Inc. said for the three months ended Jan. 29, income swelled 112 percent to $108.6 million, or $1.30 a diluted share, from $51.2 million, or 61 cents, in the same year-ago quarter. Soaring profits were mostly from an aftertax gain of $53.7 million in connection with the retailer’s sale of its private label credit card business to GE Consumer Finance for $1.1 billion. The quarter also included an $8.6 million aftertax impairment charge. The prior year’s quarter included $11.3 million aftertax asset impairment charges as well. Sales were essentially flat at $2.3 billion.

Management at Dillard’s reiterated its “strong belief that merchandise differentiation with special emphasis on becoming a more upscale retailer” is crucial to the retailer’s success. “The company seeks to build and maintain customer loyalty by presenting more exciting fashion choices reflective of a younger-focused and more upscale attitude,” the retailer said in a statement.

The company has also been eliminating underperforming lines. Dillard’s said it will use information technology capabilities to tailor the assortments to local demographics. So far, exclusive brand merchandise has gained slightly as a percentage of sales, reaching 23.1 percent in 2004 from 20.9 percent in 2003. It plans to open eight more stores and replace one store in 2005.Analyst Bob Buchanan of A.G. Edwards & Sons Inc. said in a research note Thursday that gross margin rates at Dillard’s have now improved for five quarters straight, reflecting tighter inventory controls.

For the 52 weeks ended Jan. 29, income was $117.6 million, or $1.41 a share, up from $9.3 million, or 11 cents, a year ago while sales dipped 0.9 percent to $7.53 billion from $7.6 billion.

The Bon-Ton Stores Inc. posted a 10.1 percent gain in net income to $26.8 million, or $1.65 a diluted share, from $24.4 million, or $1.52, a year ago while retail sales gained 2.6 percent to $463.3 million from $451.8 million.

Byron Bergren, president and ceo, said in a conference call to Wall Street that sales of misses’ and women’s sportswear as well as fashion accessories did well in the quarter.

Regarding differentiation, Bergren said, “We want to be known for our cosmetic business, our home business and women’s apparel. Our goal in most of our markets is to have 40 percent or 50 percent of our product that is different. Brands that you won’t find elsewhere in the competition: Nine West; Ralph Lauren; Liz Claiborne; Izod; Dooney & Bourke, and others. We also want to continue to profitably develop private label as a differentiator.”

Private label in 2004 accounted for 13 percent of sales at the retailer. For fiscal 2004, income fell by 2.1 percent to $20.2 million, or $1.24 a diluted share, from $20.6 million, or $1.33, in fiscal 2003. Sales gained 41.4 percent to $1.31 billion from $926.4 million. The jump in sales in 2004 included the $607 million contribution from Bon-Ton’s acquisition of Elder-Beerman Stores.

For the three months, Green Bay, Wis.-based ShopKo Stores Inc. posted a 12.3 percent jump in income to $35.4 million, or $1.19 a diluted share, from $31.6 million, or $1.07, in the year-ago quarter. Total revenues fell by 4.4 percent to $913 million from $956 million, which included a 4.5 percent decline in sales to $909.6 million from $952.9 million.

ShopKo said separately that it will spend up to $60 million in capital expenditures for fiscal 2005, which will be used in part for 16 ShopKo remodels, 35 Pamida remodels and eight new Pamida locations.Sam Duncan, president and ceo, said during a conference call: “I am delighted to see that our women’s apparel business is gaining traction. Last year, we improved the assortment by balancing our selection by age, lifestyle and fit.”

For the full year, income gained 10.8 percent to $43.3 million, or $1.46 a diluted share, from $39.1 million, or $1.33, in fiscal year 2003. Total revenues decreased by 1.9 percent to $3.18 billion from $3.2 billion, while sales were down slightly by 0.5 percent to $3.17 billion from $3.18 billion.

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