NEW YORK — Three retail heavyweights — Target Corp., J.C. Penney and Nordstrom — weighed in with higher fourth-quarter earnings on Thursday.

However, all three demonstrated, in varying degrees, how inventory and expense discipline was critical to pumping up the bottom line. Target’s earnings advanced despite a decline in fourth-quarter comparable-store sales and Penney’s more than doubled despite a virtually flat sales performance. At Nordstrom, which filed its final number of the 2002-2003 fiscal year after the close of the market, net income leaped 18.3 percent despite a far more modest increase in sales of 7.3 percent.

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