NEW YORK — The Bon-Ton Stores Inc. bounced back from a small year-ago loss with a modest profit in the third quarter.

For the three months ended Nov. 2, the York, Pa.–based operator of 73 department stores in nine Northeastern states generated net income of $328,000, or 2 cents a diluted share, versus a net loss of $484,000, or 3 cents, in the comparable period last year. Without a $900,000 pretax charge for workforce reductions in the 2001 quarter, Bon-Ton would have earned 1 cent a share.

Net and comparable-store sales decreased 4.6 percent as sales volume dropped to $167.5 million from $175.6 million in the year-ago quarter.

"We delivered third-quarter earnings ahead of the prior year in spite of lower sales," said James Baireuther, vice chairman and chief administrative officer, in a statement. "The gross margin rate increased, reflecting the change in our inventory mix with less clearance inventory and seasonal carryover than last year."

Operating income rose 71.9 percent to $2.9 million as gross margin was lifted to 37.4 percent of sales from 36.3 percent in the 2001 period.

Year-to-date, the regional department store firm reduced its net loss to $5.6 million, or 37 cents a share, from $8.6 million, or 57 cents, last year.

Excluding last year’s workforce reduction charge, the year-ago net loss per share would have been 53 cents. Sales decreased 0.9 percent to $471.9 million from $476.2 million and were off the same percentage on a comp basis.

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