With unemployment running north of 9% these days, and not expected to top out until it's above 10%, families will likely keep a tight grip on their wallets. Even in a "green shoots" economy, consumers probably won't feel comfortable loosening their purse strings.

So it comes as little surprise that deep discounter 99 Cents Only (NYSE:NDN) reported larger-than-expected fourth-quarter earnings. It earned $7 million, or $0.10 a share, on revenue of $329.2 million. That was far better than the $0.04-a-share profit analysts were hoping for, and the $4.4 million loss the firm posted last year. Perhaps the real eyebrow-raiser was that Wall Street's forecast was so anemic.

Dollar, dollar bill, yo!
Certainly the deep-discount bargain bin of retail has seen brisk business. Family Dollar (NYSE:FDO) reported last week that total sales were up 8%, while same-store sales increased 6%, on the strength of consumable merchandise. Dollar Tree (NASDAQ:DLTR), which doesn't sell anything for more than a buck, witnessed a 14% increase in sales, which generated a 37% increase in quarterly profit. Even privately held Dollar General saw earnings soar.

It's a price point that resonates with consumers. You can see it in most advertising these days, with McDonald's (NYSE:MCD) hawking its $0.99 value meals and Dunkin' Donuts offering breakfast wraps for less than a buck. Even Verizon (NYSE:VZ) tried to get into the game by offering $0.99 cab rides in New York City -- until the taxi commission put the kibosh on it.

Pennies from heaven
But 99 Cents Only isn't succeeding solely because it offers value for a dollar. After all, Wal-Mart (NYSE:WMT) sells merchandise for way more than a hundred pennies, and closeout specialist Big Lots (NYSE:BIG), despite reporting sales and comps that slipped in the quarter, was able to boost profit and raise guidance for the year. 99 Cents is the beneficiary of a value proposition that does well in good times, but explodes in popularity when things turn bad.

With climbing unemployment, flat or declining wages, and energy prices on the rise again, consumers are looking for extreme value. But can investors find it in 99 Cents Only stock, too?

A penny for your thoughts
99 Cents Only has a fairly clean and strong balance sheet, with more than $21.9 million in cash, $93 million in short-term investments, and another $26.4 million in long-term investments. That all equates to more than $2 a share in cash and investments and no long-term debt. The deep discounter is rethinking its decision to close its Texas operations, because they performed better than expected his quarter. With a fairly substantial presence in cash-strapped California (more than 70% of its stores are located there), the firm's product offerings ought to find a ready consumer base.

Although a private asset management firm was selling shares as recently as early April, insiders have been buying, and the company itself repurchased more than $12 million worth of stock in the quarter.

Yet at 33 times forward earnings, 99 Cents Only trades well ahead of its rivals, sporting a multiple that's more than twice that of Wal-Mart, Family Dollar, and Big Lots, but with long-term earnings growth prospects that are about two-thirds their rates.

Final Foolish thoughts
99 Cents Only has recovered well from earlier stumbles, and it should do well in the current economic environment. I just wouldn't be stocking up on its shares until they become as much of a closeout deal as the goods on its shelves.

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Fool contributor Rich Duprey owns shares of Wal-Mart but does not have a financial position in any of the other stocks mentioned in this article. You can see his holdings here. The Motley Fool's disclosure policy is a discount at any price.