NEW YORK — Continued sluggish sales at The Limited Inc.’s core women’s apparel business caused net earnings to slide 19.5 percent in the fourth quarter ended Jan. 29.

In the quarter, earnings dropped to $196.3 million, or 54 cents a share, from $243.9 million, or 67 cents, a year earlier. Total sales were flat at $2.4 billion.

In the year, earnings slipped 14.2 percent, to $391 million, or $1.08, from $455.5 million, or $1.25. Sales dipped 4.3 percent, to $7.2 billion from $6.9 billion.

A Limited spokesman said same-store sales for the women’s apparel business dropped 10 percent in the quarter and 5 percent in the year. Women’s apparel accounts for nearly three-quarters of the firm’s volume.

David A. Poneman, an analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein, noted that the company had recently announced it would report per-share earnings of $1.08 for the year, and it came in on target.

Poneman said he “remains concerned about Express” because its “profitability shows no sign of stabilizing yet.” He said for Limited’s management to achieve its financial objectives, “they will have to stabilize Express and turn around the Limited.”

Poneman said he believes The Limited could see a turnaround this year and is projecting earnings per share of $1.30.

In a conference call, The Limited spokesman said the firm “believes the current Wall Street consensus of 12 to 15 cents a share for the first quarter and $1.30 to $1.55 for the year is in the ballpark.”

Leslie H. Wexner, chairman and chief executive officer, said in a statement that inventories are on plan and with the right mix of winter merchandise. In the quarter, same-store sales and operating income rates were down at Express, Lerner, Limited and Lane Bryant.

Victoria’s Secret stores posted significant same-store sales increases, and the stores and catalog divisions both showed strong operating profit gains. The new businesses, including Limited Too, also posted same-store sales gains and increased operating profits. Wexner said Limited Too could double its profit contribution in 1994, and he added that Victoria’s Secret is also positioned for sales and earnings growth.

Non-women’s apparel comprised 27 percent of sales for the year and 40 percent of pretax earnings, the company said.

For the year, Express’s total sales increased, but same-store sales were flat, with operating dollars down.

At Lerner and Limited, total sales and same-store sales were down, as were operating dollars, the company said. Victoria’s Secret posted same-store gains in the high single digits and increased operating profits.

The company plans an increase of 300 stores this year. It currently operates 4,623 stores and the Victoria’s Secret catalog business.

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