Hot Topic Sizzles

Updated from 4:22 p.m. EST

Hot Topic ( HOTT) kept on burning in the fourth quarter, as its earnings per share rose 32%.

The teen apparel retailer earned $22.47 million, or 45 cents a share, in the quarter, compared to $16.56 million, or 34 cents a share, in the year-ago period. Sales at the company jumped 30.9% to $194.11 million.

The results topped Wall Street's forecast. Analysts surveyed by Thomson First Call were expecting Hot Topic to earn 44 cents a share on $191.37 million in sales.

In the first quarter, the company expects to earn 11 cents a share on sales ranging from $120 to $125 million. For the full year, Hot Topic expects to earn $1.16 a share on sales ranging from $695 million to $700 million.

Hot Topic's first-quarter forecast was a bit lower than analysts' estimates, although the full-year outlook is in line with expectations. Prior to the company's report, analysts were projecting first-quarter profits of 12 cents a share on sales of $126.4 million. For the full year, analysts are predicting earnings of $1.16 a share on $693.65 million in sales.

The company's fiscal year has already gotten off to a strong start. Its same-store sales in February grew 7.6% over the same month last year. The company's overall sales for the month increased 32% to $39.5 million.

Despite the torrid sales growth, Hot Topic's guidance apparently didn't sit well with investors. Following its report, Hot Topic's shares fell 82 cents, or 2.9%, to $27.95 in after-hours trading. The stock closed Wednesday's regular session down 13 cents, or 0.5%, to $28.77.

Strong sales at Hot Topic's older stores helped its top line in the quarter. For the quarter, its same-stores sales, which compare like results at outlets open more than a year, grew 8.5%.

But the company reported a mixed record on costs in the quarter. Its gross profit margin declined by 58 basis points as a portion of sales to 41.32%. Gross margin represents the difference between what a company charges customers for its goods and what it pays to acquire and provide them.

However, a drop in operating costs more than made up for the gross margin decline. As a portion of sales, Hot Topic's marketing, general and administrative costs fell 134 basis points.

On a conference call, company officials attributed that decline to a drop in store payroll management expenses as a portion of sales, as well as to sliding bonus pay. Hot Topic's store opening expenses also grew at a slower rate than sales during the quarter, company officials said.

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