Long-struggling retailer Talbots (NYSE:TLB) reported a better quarter yesterday than many investors expected. That still doesn't mean it was particularly good.

Talbots reported a fiscal second-quarter loss of $24.5 million, or $0.45 per share. That's hardly a vast improvement over its loss of $25 million this time last year. But its net loss from continuing operations, excluding charges, was $17.6 million, or $0.33 per share, which bested analysts' expectations for a net loss of $0.55 per share.

Several Wall Street firms upgraded the stock today, but I remain unimpressed. Talbots' net sales dropped 23%, to $304.6 million. Of course, last year it still had its J. Jill concept, which it recently jettisoned.

More importantly, same-store sales plunged 24.9%. Management emphasized cost cuts and improved merchandise margin in the press release, but with sales that ugly, it's clear the company's challenge is far from over. Talbots' nasty sales remind me of Abercrombie & Fitch (NYSE:ANF) and its nosediving comps.

Talbots still has a formidable debt load to contend with, too. Its $113 million in cash is dwarfed by its $497 million in debt outstanding, a figure that's risen from $383 million this time last year. The company's immediate liquidity issues aren't dire, since it has a $150 million credit facility. But why buy a heavily indebted niche retailer when you can get one with a sterling balance sheet -- and solid sales to boot? (I'm looking at you, Buckle (NYSE:BKE) and Aeropostale (NYSE:ARO).)

Meanwhile, in a curiously counterintuitive move, Talbots is opening new "upscale outlet stores." In the conference call, management said it has opened 10 of these stores, to positive customer response. Although I'm sure many shareholders are happy to hear that, will the new venture truly improve the overall business, or just be one more J. Jill-style money sink? New investments haven't worked well for Gap (NYSE:GPS), after all. The once-mighty clothier has struggled to revive dwindling sales, although at least Gap has a cash-rich balance sheet and no debt.

It's a tough time for retail in general, and things will probably get worse for many retailers before they get better. I still prefer stocks like Aeropostale, which has been performing very well operationally, despite the difficult economic climate. If even a niche retailer is a bit too risky for your investing dollars, you might always consider the more recession-resistant Wal-Mart Stores (NYSE:WMT) and Costco (NASDAQ:COST).

Talbots shares were up about 11% in intraday trading, apparently because of analysts' upgrades. Still, investors should take a "buyer beware" approach; Talbots' continuing struggle to operate profitably is no new wrinkle.

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Alyce Lomax does not own shares of any of the companies mentioned. The Fool has a disclosure policy.