Rite Aid ( RAD) is slowly putting its turnaround back on track.

The company, the nation's third-largest drugstore chain, said Thursday that its losses were less than anticipated in the fourth quarter as sales continued to pick up. The results offered the latest evidence of increasing spending by consumers as the economy makes its way back from a brief recession.

Thursday's news was perhaps most notable because a drugstore chain other than Walgreen ( WAG) had good news for Wall Street. Walgreen, the clear industry leader, has benefited lately from problems at virtually all its rivals, including CVS ( CVS), which has had to take hefty charges to close stores, and J.C. Penney's ( JCP) Eckerd chain, which has been beset by lawsuits.

Narrowing

For the fourth quarter ended March 2, Rite Aid lost $257.9 million, or 52 cents a share, compared with a net loss of $362.1 million, or $1.07 a share, in the same period last year.

Rite Aid said its loss, excluding charges, was 8 cents a share, compared with the consensus expectation of a loss of 11 cents, according to Thomson Financial/First Call. Revenue in the quarter was $4 billion, vs. revenue of $4.1 billion in last year's fourth quarter, which included one extra week.

Shares were off 18 cents at $3.74 in recent trading, or about double their 52-week low reached in January.

"Sales growth improved month to month during the period, and this positive momentum has continued into our new fiscal year," said Mary Sammons, Rite Aid's president and chief operating officer, in a statement.

The company's cash flow, or earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization, was also better than expected at $143.5 million, or 3.6% of sales. This number is closely watched by Rite Aid investors and analysts that follow the company because of its history of liquidity problems and accounting irregularities. The company has faced civil and criminal inquiries stemming from allegations it manipulated earnings in 1997, 1998 and 1999.

Rite Aid, which is based in Camp Hill, Pa., and operates about 3,500 stores, certainly had a more pleasant message for Wall Street Thursday than it did earlier this year when the company reported the third quarter. At that time, Rite Aid said its loses were much larger than anticipated and gave cash flow projections that disappointed.

Embracing Risk

During the quarter, same-store sales grew 8.1% compared to a year ago, mainly because of strong prescription drug sales. Sales for front-end items -- the general merchandise goods, such as snacks and stationery -- increased 3.6%. The company said it expects same-store sales to jump 8% to 9% in the first quarter.

Based on the monthly sales data released during the quarter, some analysts had been expecting a strong quarter and began recommending the stock. For example, Neil Currie, of UBS Warburg, recently upgraded to buy from hold. "While we still consider Walgreen to be, by far, the best investment opportunity in the drug retail sector, those willing to embrace more risk may wish to add Rite Aid to their portfolio," he wrote in a recent report. (His firm does not have a banking relationship with the company.)

They also may wish to add Duane Reade ( DRD), say some analysts. The New York-centric drugstore chain also posted a good quarter Thursday. Its earnings came in a penny above consensus estimates, but more importantly, the company said earnings could fall above expectations for the second quarter and full year. As a result, Merrill Lynch analyst Monica Aggarwal boosted her rating to strong buy. (Merrill has had a banking relationship with Duane Reade.) Shares were up 50 cents at $33.36.