updated 2/24/2005 9:28:19 AM ET 2005-02-24T14:28:19

Department store chain J.C. Penney Co. said Thursday it swung to a profit and beat Wall Street expectations in the fourth quarter as sales at stores open at least a year rose 3 percent from a year ago.

The retailer earned $333 million, or $1.17 per share, in the quarter ended Jan. 29, compared to a loss of $1.07 billion, or $3.42 per share, a year earlier, when Penney was dragged down by problems at the Eckerd drugstore chain, which it sold last year.

Penney said profit from continuing operations was $328 million or $1.16 per share, compared to $253 million or 83 cents per share a year ago, excluding Eckerd. On that basis, analysts surveyed by Thomson First Call had forecast $1.11 per share for the latest quarter.

Revenue fell to $6.07 billion from $6.10 billion a year earlier despite the increase in sales at stores open at least a year.

Penney said February sales started strong and same-store sales are expected to rise by mid-single digits for the month and low-single digits for the current quarter, which ends in late April.

Profit from continuing operations is expected to be 48 cents to 53 cents per share in the first quarter and $2.89 to $3.01 per share for the fiscal year, the company said. The full-year outlook includes a cost of 8 cents per share to buy back debt and 5 cents per share to account for the cost of stock options, which the company will begin expensing in the first quarter.

The company forecast is in line with analysts’ expectations of 49 cents per share in the first quarter but below their prediction of $3.10 per share for the year.

Penney also said its board was considering buying back at least $600 million in company stock this year.

For its fiscal year, Penney earned $524 million, or $1.76 per share, compared to a loss of $928 million, or $3.13 per share, the previous year. Revenue rose 3.6 percent to $18.42 billion from $17.79 billion.

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