By  on April 2, 2010

Belk Inc. generated a profit, versus a year-ago loss, and slowed the pace of its sales erosion in the fourth quarter.

During the three months ended Jan. 30, the Charlotte, N.C.-based department store operator generated net income of $56.7 million versus a loss of $202.8 million in the 2008 quarter, when the company recorded about $324 million in pretax impairment charges. Sales declined 1.3 percent to $1.1 billion from $1.11 billion in the prior-year quarter, and gross margin improved to 34.3 percent of sales from 31.1 percent.

For the full year, net income hit $67.1 million versus a prior-year loss of $213 million. Belk said that, excluding one-time items, such as $245.6 million in aftertax goodwill impairment charges in 2008, profits for the year would have been $95.2 million, 79.3 percent above the prior-year figure of $53.1 million. Sales fell 4.4 percent to $3.35 billion from $3.5 billion in fiscal 2008, and same-store sales decreased 4.6 percent. Gross margin improved to 32.1 percent of sales from 30.6 percent in the prior year.

“We saw steadily improving sales trends in the third and fourth quarters of the year and are encouraged about our results, especially improvements in our merchandise margins,” said Tim Belk, chairman and chief executive officer of the company.

The retailer didn’t furnish fourth-quarter results when it released year-end numbers Thursday, but figures were gleaned by subtracting results for the nine months from those for the fiscal year.

Belk, the largest privately held department store company in the U.S., said Thursday that, in addition to its regular dividend of 40 cents a share, it would pay a special 40 cent a share dividend to holders of record Thursday. Additionally, the company has offered to buy back 2.88 million shares of common stock at $26 a share, beginning on or about April 21.

Belk operates 306 department stores, most in the Southeast. The firm plans no additional stores this year.

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