My bad. I've been one of those people who's been spending a lot of time lately looking at retail and concentrating only on the high-flying specialty stores. You know, the Aeropostales (NYSE:ARO). The Abercrombies (NYSE:ANF). And -- with apologies to Gollum -- the Chico's-es (NYSE:CHS) and the American Eagle Outfitters-es (NASDAQ:AEOS).

I should also have been keeping an eye on the old-school department stores, especially J.C. Penney (NYSE:JCP). Today's first-quarter earnings show why Penney's one-year chart looks like a long, steep run.

Let's start at the top. Revenues climbed 3.9% to $4.2 billion. That's hardly a blistering pace, but it comes on top of a decent 3% increase in same-store sales -- at a time when plenty of retailers are reporting much softer comps.

On the bottom line, Penney put up $0.63 per share, or nearly five times last year's $0.13. Gross margins improved by 1.2%, and operating profit increased from 5.7% of sales to 7.5%. The per-share payoff for shareholders was also juiced by continuing stock buybacks.

So things look good. Golf clap for the Penney turnaround. But. but, it's tough to get a lot more excited than this. Penney is certainly no value, if it ever was. Free cash flow is, well, negative now. And it's been spotty at Penney for years. Couple that with below-average returns on equity, assets, and capital, and I have a hard time mustering much more enthusiasm for Penney as an investment. We're not talking about a possible growth breakout here.

The past couple years' appreciation notwithstanding, if the firm can't turn increased earnings into cash flow, there's not much left but for investors but hope for a higher share price. That's rarely a winning reason to hang onto a stock.

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Seth Jayson does his clothes shopping at the onion-sack depository. At the time of publication, he had shares of Aeropostale, but no positions in any other stock mentioned. View his stock holdings and Fool profile here. Fool rules are here.