CHICAGO (AP) ¿ Customers who shied away from buying expensive office furniture and gadgets helped drag down results at Staples Inc., which posted a 14 percent drop in fourth-quarter profit and missed Wall Street expectations.

But executives at the world's largest office supplier told investors that the first quarter was so far better than the previous quarter, when results were also hurt by hefty one-time charges, while cautioning they expect 2009 to remain "tough."

"I think the economy is on life support, but i do think it will recover," Chairman and Chief Executive Ron Sargent told analysts during a conference call. "When I look out, there's some early indications that things are getting better in our retail business. ... I think 2009 is going to be an improving year, but not a good one."

For the three months that ended Jan. 31, the Framingham, Mass.-based retailer earned $286 million, or 40 cents per share. That's down from $333.2 million, or 47 cents per share, during the same period last year.

One-time items in the quarter include charges linked to July's acquisition of Corporate Express NV and the reversal of a $57 million non-cash charge recorded in the third quarter. Excluding those items, the company's adjusted profit was $256 million, or 36 cents per share for the quarter.

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