Retailer J.C. Penney Co. Inc. reported on Tuesday a net profit for its fiscal third quarter compared with a year-ago loss, as improved results at its department stores and higher operating margins boosted results.

Net income in the quarter ended Oct. 27, was $31 million, compared with a loss of $30 million a year ago. 

Earnings from continuing operations, before one-time items, were 13 cents a share, compared with a loss of 24 cents a year ago. Wall Street analysts' estimates ranged from 11 cents to 15 cents, with the consensus at 13 cents, according to data from Thomson Financial/First Call. 

Penney had forecast earnings of 11 cents to 15 cents a share. 

Last week, Penney reported fiscal third-quarter total sales of $7.73 billion, up 2.5 percent from $7.54 billion a year ago. Sales at its department stores open at least a year, or same-store sales, were up 5.1 percent, while Eckerd drugstore same-store sales rose 8.4 percent. 

Department store operating profit rose 83 percent to $148 million. Same-store sales rose in the segment, while selling, general and administrative expenses fell 1.5 percent, the company said. Expense reductions from cost-saving initiatives more than offset higher planned advertising. 

``Department Stores generated a 5.1 percent comparable store sales increase, which indicates that merchandise assortments, together with marketing efforts, are bringing the customer back to JCPenney,'' Allen Questrom, chairman and chief executive, said in a news release. 

Eckerd posted an operating profit of $30 million, compared with a loss of $63 million a year ago as sales rose and expenses fell. 

The company also said it expects operating earnings per share to be in the 30-cent to 35-cent range for the year. Analysts forecast earnings of 30 cents to 38 cents, with a mean of 33 cents, according to First Call. 

But Questrom added that the retailing and economic environments make it ``difficult, if not impossible, to forecast with any degree of certainty.'' 

J.C. Penney shares closed on Monday at $23.75 on the New York Stock Exchange. Since Sept. 11, the stock has risen 7.6 percent, while the Standard & Poor's department store index has risen 13.4 percent.