Specialty retailer

Talbots

(TLB)

posted an increase in first-quarter earnings that beat the Wall Street consensus by a penny, as women's business apparel drove sales.

The company said Wednesday its profit for the quarter ended May 1 rose to $33.3 million, or 58 cents a share, from $29.4 million, or 51 cents a share, a year earlier. Analysts had been expecting 57 cents a share in the latest period.

Sales increased 6% to $419 million. By division, retail sales were up 7% to $353.4 million, while catalog sales were flat at $65.6 million.

"Throughout the quarter we experienced consistently healthy sales trends in our core women's business, with regular-price comparable store sales in the positive mid to high single digit range," the company said in a statement.

Talbots said soft markdown selling from lean inventories and weakness in Talbots Kids and dresses offset its strong sales trends and resulted in a same-store sales increase of 1.7% in the quarter.

The Hingham, Mass.-based company didn't provide second-quarter guidance but said it "will be offering a variety of other customer traffic-driving events, targeted to both our loyal core customer and our less frequent customer."

The company had previously said it expects full-year 2004 earnings to increase 10%. Analysts are calling for $2.09 a share in the year, which would compare to $1.82 a share earned in 2003. Analysts expect 36 cents a share in the second quarter, which would be an increase from 31 cents a share in the year-earlier period.

Talbots plans to open 75 new stores in 2004 to bring its total to 1,049 stores at year-end.

Shares of the company were flat at $33 Tuesday in early trading on the

New York Stock Exchange

. The shares are up 24% year over year.