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Staples 4Q Net Rises 3.2% On Steady Margins, Slim Sales Gains

DOW JONES NEWSWIRES Staples Inc.'s (SPLS) fiscal fourth-quarter earnings rose 3.2% as the office-supply giant booked modest sales gains in its North American retail and delivery businesses and held margins steady. Office suppliers like Staples are operating in an intensely competitive retail environment, a challenge that has only been compounded by declining demand for office products, particularly among budget-challenged government customers. Looking ahead, Staples said it expects slow growth in the U.S. economy and a soft demand environment in Europe to figure in its 2012 results. For the year, Staples predicted earnings growth in the high single-digit percentage range over the $1.37 adjusted per-share profit recorded in 2011. Including the impact of the 53rd week in fiscal 2012, Staples also predicted full year sales to increase in the low single-digits compared to the prior year. Wall Street analysts currently expect a per-share profit of $1.49 on 1% sales growth, according to a survey conducted by Thomson Reuters. For the quarter ended Jan. 28, Staples posted a profit of $283.6 million, or 41 cents a share, up from a year-earlier profit of $274.7 million, or 38 cents a share. Sales inched up 0.7% to $6.46 billion. The company had called for earnings of 39 cents to 43 cents a share on sales growth in the flat to low-single digits percentage range. Gross margin was flat at 26.8%. North American retail sales rose 2.7% to $2.63 billion, as same-store sales rose 2% on higher average order size and a slight increase in customer traffic. Sales in the North American delivery division were up 1.5% from a year earlier, while international sales posted a 4.6% decline. Shares closed Tuesday at $16 and were inactive in premarket trading. The stock is up 15% since the start of the year. -By Mia Lamar, Dow Jones Newswires; 212-416-3207; mia.lamar@dowjones.com

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