Ross Stores ( ROST), an off-price retailer of apparel and home accessories, said earnings rose 37% from a year ago for the fourth quarter.

The company earned $71 million, or 49 cents a share, in the quarter, compared with $51.8 million, or 35 cents a share, a year ago. Analysts surveyed by Thomson First Call were expecting earnings of 49 cents a share in the most recent quarter.

Fourth-quarter revenue rose 16% from a year ago to $1.4 billion in line with the expectation of analysts. The comparable store sales rose 6% from a year ago.

"We are pleased with the solid earnings growth we realized in the fourth quarter of 2005, which was driven by a combination of strong sales gains and expansion in operating margin. Gross profit margin for the quarter rose about 185 basis points, partially offset by an approximate 70 basis point increase in selling, general and administrative expenses mainly related to higher incentive plan costs," the company said. "We also continued to enhance stockholder value through our share repurchase and dividend programs. During 2005, we completed the two-year $350 million stock repurchase program authorized by our Board of Directors in 2004, buying back a total of 6.4 million shares of common stock in 2005 for an aggregate purchase of $175 million. In addition, in November 2005, our Board of Directors authorized a new $400 million two-year stock repurchase program for 2006 and 2007 and approved a 20% increase in our quarterly cash dividend."

The number of stores opened at the end of the fourth quarter increased to 734, compared with 649 a year ago.

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