updated 2/25/2008 10:00:19 AM ET 2008-02-25T15:00:19

Lowe's Cos., the nation's second biggest home improvement retailer, said Monday that a softer U.S. housing market helped drive its fourth-quarter earnings down 33.4 percent.

The company also said it expects sales in established stores to drop at least 5 percent in the current quarter and for the year, sending its shares down 2.5 percent in premarket trading.

Mooresville, N.C.-based Lowe's said its profit in the period ending Feb. 1 fell to $408 million, or 28 cents a share, from $613 million, or 40 cents per share, in the prior-year period.

Sales remained virtually steady at just under $10.4 billion.

Analysts surveyed by Thomson Financial had been looking for net income of 25 cents a share on revenue of $10.85 billion. Estimates usually exclude one-time items.

Same-store sales _ which counts sales at stores open at least a year _ declined 7.6 percent for the fourth quarter. Same-store sales are considered a good gauge of retail health.

Lowe's CEO Robert A. Niblock said the company will "remain focused on what we can control."

"The next several quarters will be challenging on many fronts as industry sales are likely to remain soft," he said.

The company expects first quarter total sales to rise about 2 percent on earnings of about 38 cents to 42 cents a share. Analysts have forecast earnings of 43 cents per share.

Lowe's and bigger rival Home Depot Inc., which is expected to post fourth-quarter numbers Tuesday morning, have seen profits slide over the past year as a slump in the housing industry continues.

For the year, Lowe's reported earnings of $2.8 billion, or $1.86 per share, compared with $3.1 billion, or $1.99 per share, in 2007. Revenue rose to $48.3 billion from $46.9 billion a year ago.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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