Quarterly earnings at specialty retailers Ann Taylor ( ANN) and Talbots ( TLB) have been at opposite ends of the spectrum for the past two years. The fourth quarter of 2003 is expected to have proven no different when the companies report earnings -- Ann Taylor after the close Tuesday, and Talbots on Wednesday.

While Ann Taylor is poised to nearly double its fourth-quarter profit, Talbots is expected to post another year-over-year quarterly decline, though both companies likely will report quarters in line with Wall Street's estimates.

In the past six quarters, the companies each have reported in line to above-consensus quarterly profit. But while Ann Taylor has improved its profit each quarter, Talbots' profit has been shrinking. Analysts expect Ann Taylor to earn 65 cents a share in the fourth quarter, which would be up from the year-earlier period's profit of 35 cents a share. Meanwhile, Talbots is expected to earn 40 cents a share in the quarter, which would be a decrease of 8 cents a share from the prior-year quarter.

In early February, Ann Taylor said it expected to earn 63 cents to 65 cents a share. Since the second quarter of 2002, both sales and earnings have increased on a quarter-over-quarter basis after the company hit a rough patch in 2000 and 2001 that was due to a series of merchandise miscues.

Lately, the company "has been in an improvement mode," said Harry Ikenson, a research analyst at First Albany. The company's Loft division has been driving results, he said, with 10 months of positive same-store sales growth through January. (Ikenson holds no shares of either Ann Taylor or Talbots, and his company does not do investment banking for them.)

In fact, the Loft division has lately had six consecutive months of double-digit same-store sales gains. "I see the Loft division as being the second-strongest adult apparel retailer out there, next to Chico's ( CHS)," said Ikenson, who expects Ann Taylor to report earnings of 65 cents a share on Tuesday.

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