May 21, 2010 / 12:11 PM / 10 years ago

Ann Taylor beats Street on higher sales

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Ann Taylor Stores Corp ANN.N reported higher-than-expected quarterly earnings on Friday as demand at its women’s clothing stores was stronger than anticipated and it benefited from more full-price selling.

The company, whose shares were up 8 percent, said sales rose nearly 12 percent to $476.2 million, fueled by a 14.1 percent increase in sales at stores open at least a year. Same-store sales rose 16.4 percent at the namesake Ann Taylor chain and 12.5 percent at the more casual and less expensive LOFT business.

Earlier this month, the company said it expected to report quarterly sales of $475 million, which was what Wall Street has been estimating.

Like other chains that cater to mature women, such as Talbots Inc TLB.N and Chico’s FAS Inc (CHS.N), Ann Taylor is working to turn around its fortunes after struggling with weak sales for several quarters. It has been successful in freshening up its fashions, analysts said.

Core customers in the sector already have closets full of clothing and are less driven by fashion trends.

Net income was $22.6 million, or 38 cents per share, in the first quarter ended May 1, compared with a year-earlier loss of $2.3 million, or 4 cents per share.

Analysts on average were expecting 35 cents per share, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.

CAREFUL ABOUT INVENTORY

Leaner inventories, along with the strong sales, helped reduce discounting and boosted gross margin by 3.9 percentage points to 59.4 percent.

Inventories companywide were down 2.3 percent at the end of the quarter.

Chief Executive Officer Kay Krill said in a statement that the retailer benefited from increased shopper traffic during the quarter but would continue to manage inventory carefully.

Ann Taylor expects gross margin improvements to continue in the current quarter, forecasting a 2.5 percentage point increase over a year earlier to 52.4 percent.

It forecast sales of $1.95 billion to $1.98 billion for the fiscal year. Analysts expect $1.96 billion.

For the second quarter, the company expects sales of about $500 million.

Ann Taylor lowered the number of stores it plans to have closed this year to 61 from 72. As of May 1, the company operated 903 stores.

As was the case with most other retailers, Ann Taylor shares were hit hard by the market’s decline in recent weeks.

“Given the stock lost value in recent market selloff, we expect this morning’s results and outlook to drive some near-term recovery in the shares,” Jefferies analyst Randal Konik wrote in a research note, setting $23 as a target price on the shares.

The shares were up $1.62, or 8 percent, at $21.85 in midday trading.

Reporting by Phil Wahba; additional reporting by Martinne Geller, editing by Gerald E. McCormick and John Wallace

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