Leading discount women's clothing chain Cato Corp on Tuesday posted a 13 per cent year-on-year slide in fourth quarter net profit amid weak same-store sales.

The North Carolina-based operator of more than 1,020 stores reported net income of $9.8 million, or 38 cents per share, compared with $11.2m, or 43 cents, in the year-ago period.

Total sales for the quarter to February 1 climbed to $191m from $185.2m but same-store sales fell four per cent.

For the full year, the company posted net income of $45.8m, or $1.77 per share, versus $43.1m, or $1.66 per share, last year. Sales rose to $732.7m from $685.7m while same-store sales were flat.

For the year ahead, Cato said it plans to open 90 new stores and sees 2003 earnings per share in a range of $1.84 to $1.91 – up 4-8 per cent. It added it expects same-store sales to be flat or up slightly for the majority of the year.

"This was our fourth consecutive year of record earnings and the sixth consecutive year of earnings improvement," said John Cato, president, vice chairman and CEO, in a news release.

"Although we experienced a difficult fourth quarter, earnings per share for the year increased seven per cent on flat comp store sales. We continue to build our company with a controlled growth plan that delivers consistent fashion, quality, and value to our customers and long-term value to our shareholders."