Investors have seen a lot of difficulties among retailers, and the entire industry has gone through a transformational shift in recent years. Even upscale department-store giant Nordstrom (NYSE:JWN) has seen its business come under intense pressure, prompting family shareholders to explore taking the company private before coming to the conclusion last year that it probably wasn't a viable option to pursue.

Coming into Thursday's fourth-quarter financial report, Nordstrom investors were hoping to see bottom-line gains despite pressure on sales. Nordstrom's results were mixed in that light, but many believe that the retailer is on the right track to keep up with changing consumer preferences and find long-term success.

Rendering of Nordstrom storefront with people walking in front and an outdoor cafe above the entryway.

Image source: Nordstrom.

Nordstrom sees a mixed picture

Nordstrom's fourth-quarter results had their good and bad points. Total revenue of $4.48 billion was down almost 5% from year-ago levels, and that was considerably worse than the 1% drop that most of those following the stock had expected. Yet net earnings of $248 million jumped 64% over the same period, and earnings of $1.48 per share were higher than the consensus forecast among investors for $1.40 per share.

Part of the downward pressure on revenue came from the fact that 2017's fourth quarter had 14 weeks in it. Adjusting for that factor, Nordstrom's sales would have been higher by 0.1%.

Fundamentally, Nordstrom's business performance continued past trends. Comparable sales overall rose just 0.1%, further slowing from its gains earlier in the year. As we've seen several times before, the full-price business lagged behind the overall company's numbers, with comps falling 1.6%.

Nordstrom said that softer traffic trends were largely to blame for the pullback. Meanwhile, in the off-price segment, conditions looked better. Comparable sales were up 4%, which was consistent with what the retailer had expected to see.

Overall, Nordstrom managed to achieve several key milestones. The company had 10 million customers use multiple sales channels to shop, which makes up about a third of Nordstrom's total customer base. Digital sales were up 16% from year-earlier levels, and the launch of the retailer's local market strategy showed considerable success in the Los Angeles market. Investments in, HauteLook, Trunk Club, and its New York City men's store all showed promising results.

Nordstrom also executed well on its cost-control initiatives. Higher promotional markdowns weighed on gross margin, but overhead expenses fell from year-earlier levels, and the company was able to save more than it had expected during the period.

Check out the latest Nordstrom earnings call transcript.

Can Nordstrom keep picking up speed?

Nordstrom continues to build up expansion plans. During the coming fiscal year, Nordstrom expects to open full-line stores in New York and the southwestern Connecticut community of Norwalk, along with five U.S. Nordstrom Rack locations. However, the company has noted separately that it's also looking at shutting down stores that aren't performing as well as they should. Among the most recent announcements earlier this year were stores in Virginia and Florida, and it's possible that Nordstrom will look for other underperforming properties, as well.

In terms of financial guidance, Nordstrom's outlook showed some optimism. The retailer expects that net sales growth will come in at a sluggish pace of just 1% to 2%, which is less than the consensus forecast for its growth rate. However, calls for earnings of $3.65 to $3.90 per share were quite a bit more upbeat than the $3.56 per share that most investors were looking to see.

Nordstrom investors looked happy about that earnings guidance, and the stock surged 6% in after-hours trading following the announcement. The retailer has a lot of work left to do to get its sales trends moving in the right direction, but even this much good news is a sight for sore eyes among shareholders who've dealt with Nordstrom's challenges over the past several years.