After a couple of threadbare years, Jo-Ann Stores (NYSE: JAS) looks to be stitching the business back together. I wouldn't say the company has a full wardrobe just yet, but its closet is looking a bit more presentable.

Fourth-quarter comparable-store sales improved to 3.3% from increased average ticket. This is four quarters in a row of positive comps. Better, but coming off negative 6% comps last year, the company still has a way to go before it's back to the same-store sales levels it reached years ago.

Management credits the sales gains to a "repair plan" focused on:

  • Sharper inventory management to reduce clutter in the stores.
  • Restoring gross margins to historic levels.
  • Rationalizing expenses.
  • Systems improvements in merchandising, distribution, and store operations.

This mending was long overdue. Improvement is slow, but noticeable. While total sales slipped 2.5%, operating profit rose 10.6% with the help of expense leverage. Inventories look in line coming out of the holidays, up 4% because of the purchase of spring merchandise. And the bottom line of $1.10 inched up 4.8% compared to last year's fourth quarter.

If Jo-Ann can sew its financial performance back together, I think it can benefit from changes in the industry. Competitor A.C. Moore (Nasdaq: ACMR) just reported fourth-quarter comp sales down 14.5%, and Hancock Fabrics (HKFIQ.PK) is struggling to emerge from Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Wal-Mart (NYSE: WMT) is gracefully exiting the fabric business, and Jo-Ann stores within 10 miles of a closed Wal-Mart fabric business have already shown superior performance over the rest of the chain's stores.

I wouldn't call this a gusty tailwind for Jo-Ann, more like a minor breeze. But with systems upgrades on tap for 2008, cleaner stores, and some much needed merchandising discipline -- a few more stitches in time may help the company get back on track.  

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