It sounded like a big deal: Super discounter Big Lots (NYSE: BIG) posted earnings of $1.04 per share, outstripping the penny-pinching $0.84 analysts had predicted. The results were good but aren't quite the blowout they appear.

Enhancing that figure was an $0.11-per-share bankruptcy trust settlement with KB Toys, which chops those profits down to $0.93 a share. Whittle away $0.02 more from a lower-than-forecast tax rate and another $0.04 benefit due to share buybacks. Ultimately, a comparable earnings report of $0.87 per share is more accurate. Again, it was good and beat estimates, but it's not the world-beater it seemed to be.

Quite the opposite are Dollar Tree's (Nasdaq: DLTR) recent results. Its earnings seemed bleak on the surface, but when you stripped away the extra selling week from last year, revenue and profits actually rose.

Compared to many other retailers now, it's heartening to see that Big Lots comps haven't been worse than they are. Comps averaged roughly 5% during the first two quarters of 2007 and then turned negative in Q3. Still, the 0.5% slippage last quarter and 0.6% drop this time around aren't notably bad, given the weak retail environment. I'd say the discounter is probably positioned to recover before many of its rivals can; some are experiencing worse sales trends.

Improved distribution and transportation efficiencies lowered operating costs by 14%, but still net income fell from 2006. However, the retailer is expecting the first quarter of 2008 to be on the upside. Management said it was working on a couple of closeout offerings for furniture and drugstore items that should boost sales.

99 Cents Only (NYSE: NDN) reported surprising strength in its same-store sales for the quarter (up 2.9%), and Family Dollar (NYSE: FDO) said February comps were up 1%; I think Big Lots might see better profits blooming this spring.

Certainly, operating margins have been improving steadily, although Dollar Tree and Family Dollar still rate higher. Both Fred's (Nasdaq: FRED) and 99 Cents Only trail Big Lots in that regard.

One problem facing the deep discounter is that sales aren't driving much of its performance, and there is only so much cutting the discounter will be able to do. Too deep, and Big Lots will have further earnings reports that look like a big deal on the surface but are less satisfying below.

The 30% of Big Lots shares being held short as of mid-February undoubtedly helped move Big Lots' stock up big time yesterday, by around 12%. Still, the company trades at an attractive 13 times trailing earnings despite analysts' predictions for 16% long-term growth.

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Fool contributor Rich Duprey does not have a financial position in any of the stocks mentioned in this article. You can click to see his holdings here. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.