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first-quarter sales and earnings were virtually unchanged from a year ago, held back by higher fuel prices that made car owners skittish.

The autoparts retailer, which is about 35% owned by



impresario Ed Lampert, earned $122.5 million, or $1.52 a share, in the three months ended Nov. 20, compared with earnings of $121.7 million, or $1.35 a share, last year. Sales rose 0.3% from a year ago to $1.29 billion, while same-store sales fell 3%.

Analysts surveyed by Thomson First Call were forecasting earnings of $1.44 a share on sales of $1.32 billion in the most recent quarter.

Autozone's earnings release reflected the standard Lampert concentration on profitability and resource allocation, noting that return on invested capital for the trailing four quarters increased to 24.9% from 24.0% the previous year. AutoZone posted operating margins of 16.8% in the first quarter, up 4 basis points from a year ago, while gross profit as a percentage of sales rose 44 basis points from last year.

"Our business was challenged by the high gas prices this past quarter, as our customers continued to manage their expenditures closely and hold off on doing some preventative maintenance," the company said in a release.

"Our financial model is strong, however, and we have continued to increase earnings and operating cash flow while simultaneously improving our business model by removing risks associated with interest rate fluctuations and warranty liability."