NEW YORK — Retailers’ cautious approach to inventories helped depress Estee Lauder Cos. Inc.’s second-quarter sales and profits, and the company acknowledged that it will not return to its customary 8 to 9 percent sales growth until after fiscal 2003.

Fred Langhammer, president and chief executive, said he expects sales growth for the full year, but said it wouldn’t reach its customary levels. “That business model is not realistic [now],” he said on a conference call with analysts. “Therefore, the number’s going to be lower for the next 18 months or two years.”

Net income totaled $90.1 million, or 35 cents a diluted share, 29.2 percent below year-ago profits of $127.3 million, or 50 cents. Sales for the quarter ended Dec. 31 slid 2.6 percent to $1.26 billion against $1.29 billion in the comparable year-ago period. On a constant currency basis, sales were down a slightly milder 2 percent.

The effect of declining sales was compounded by a 3.7 percent uptick in selling, general and administrative expenses to $832.7 million.

Results came in at the lower end of Dec. 19 estimates from the firm. Investors traded shares of the firm down 40 cents, or 1.2 percent, to close at $33.60 on the New York Stock Exchange Wednesday.

On the call, Langhammer said the quarter gave him “a new appreciation for Murphy’s Law — anything that can go wrong will go wrong.”

Among the factors working against Lauder in the quarter were overall retail sluggishness, inventory contraction, particularly by domestic retailers, and a sharp reduction in the firm’s travel retail business.

Some analysts were disturbed by the lack of guidance provided on the call, but Langhammer steadfastly declined to provide it. “This environment is not transparent enough” to predict third-quarter earnings, he said. The company’s earnings statement said a forecast would be offered once spring programs are in place and the retail outlook is clearer.

Retail destocking of Lauder products took a bite out of sales and earnings, Langhammer noted. Although justifiable from retail management’s standpoint, he noted that that Lauder was receiving more complaints than ever from consumers who haven’t been able to get the products they want at the point of sale.

The cosmetics firm, like its retail customers, has its own concerns over inventory. Banc of America Securities analyst William Steele said that, while Lauder has taken steps to improve its balance sheet, “Inventory is still higher than it should be.” At the end of the quarter, inventory totaled $561 million, a 12.7 percent increase versus the previous year. Langhammer noted, “I’d love to over time get another $100 million out of our inventory.” Steele called this “a directional goal; it’s not going to happen overnight.”

CS First Boston analyst Carol Warner Wilke added the inventory growth was slower than in the previous three quarters. With a 40 percent decline in travel retail, which accounts for 7 percent of overall sales, she added, “There’s nothing they can do. You can’t blame them for not giving line-by-line guidance for the March and June quarters at this point,” she said.

Langhammer did note that January store traffic was down somewhat, partially because of December markdowns, and that “some improvement,” although probably not a great deal, can be expected in travel retail.

For the first half, profits fell 24.2 percent to $166.6 million, or 64 cents a diluted share, from $219.7 million, or 86 cents, a year ago. Excluding the effects of an accounting change, earnings declined 15.6 percent to $187.2 million, or 73 cents a diluted share, from $221.9 million, or 87 cents a year ago.

Sales dipped 1 percent to $2.45 billion from $2.47 billion in the year-ago first half.