NEW YORK — Talbots Inc., boosted by growth in its online shopping channel and demand for plus-size women’s apparel, reported a 3.2 percent increase in first-quarter earnings Wednesday on a sales gain of 8.3 percent.

For the three months ended April 30, the Hingham, Mass.-based firm earned $34.5 million, or 63 cents a diluted share, matching analysts’ estimates. It earned $33.5 million, or 58 cents, in the same year-ago quarter. Operating income rose 3.9 percent to $56 million from $53.9 million last year.

Sales in the quarter were $446.5 million, compared with $412.2 million last year. Retail store sales rose 8 percent to $378.1 million, while same-store sales gained 4.3 percent. Direct-marketing sales, which include Internet and catalogue sales, totaled $68.4 million, an increase of 8 percent, the company said.

“Our customers’ response to both our refined and casual spring and summer merchandise assortments has been overall quite positive during the period and we are delighted to close out the quarter, having delivered five consecutive months of positive comps,” Arnold Zetcher, chairman, president and chief executive officer of Talbots, said on a post-earnings conference call with investors and analysts.

Zetcher said the Talbots Woman division, which serves sizes 12 to 24, had comps that increased 8 percent during the quarter. Meanwhile, sales in the company’s Internet business now make up about 37 percent of its direct-marketing business.

Talbots, which plans to open 50 stores in fiscal 2005, maintained its second-quarter guidance for earnings per share of 32 cents, a penny below analysts’ current estimate.

“We’re pleased with the progress we’re making in updating our merchandise and we have a number of initiatives in place to support our product and drive customer traffic and sales. We continue to be optimistic about a successful spring season and full year,” Zetcher said.

This story first appeared in the May 19, 2005 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

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