Plus-sized women's apparel retailer Charming Shoppes (NASDAQ:CHRS) has been building itself into the undisputed leader in its sector for some time, but long-term investors have nevertheless endured a fairly bumpy ride. Those who signed on in early 2003, however, have enjoyed little but happy days: The company's shares, following yesterday's nearly 15% jump on strong fiscal first-quarter earnings news, have returned about 300% to holders during that time.

Charming Shoppes encompasses the Fashion Bug, Lane Bryant and Catherine's chains. (The second was acquired from Limited (NYSE:LTD) in 2001 and the third in 2000.) All told, the company boasts more than 2,300 stores in 48 states -- a remarkable footprint in a market segment that doesn't get much publicity, relatively speaking.

The company's first-quarter numbers were impressive. Revenues and same-store sales each rose 5%, while cost of goods sold and selling, general, and administrative expenses as a percentage of revenue each fell, improving operating profits and margins. As a result, pretax income and net income jumped substantially -- though it's worth noting that Charming Shoppes' net profit growth numbers look especially good because the company is using figures that include a substantial restructuring expense in last year's totals. (The company does detail the costs and their impacts in its press release.)

With the dominant position in its market of choice, a balance sheet with plenty of cash, no trouble making debt payments, a history of strong free cash flow, and a projection of 35% earnings growth for the fiscal year ending Jan. 25 -- that estimate ignores last year's restructuring expense -- Charming Shoppes may not be in a hot retail segment, but its investors sure are sitting pretty.

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Fool contributor Dave Marino-Nachison doesn't own any of the companies in this story.