Home Depot (NYSE: HD) reported fourth-quarter and year-end earnings this morning, closing off a year that saw the home-improvement giant struggle to grow overall and comp sales.

Sales for the quarter ended Feb. 2 slipped 2% to $13.2 billion, and comps dropped 6%. Using a 13-week basis for comparison (2001's Q4 had 14 weeks, while this year's only had 13), sales were actually up 5%. For the year, they improved 9% to $58.2 billion, with comps flat.

Home Depot's quarterly comps, while negative, ended stronger than the retailer -- and the market -- had expected. The company warned last month that comps could fall for the quarter by as much as 10%.

Earnings for the year reached $3.66 billion, 20% ahead of 2001's results. Quarterly earnings dropped, however, to $686 million from $710 million. Per share, Home Depot turned out $0.30 in Q4, three cents better than analysts anticipated.

The company opened 61 new stores in Q4 and 203 total during the year. It now peddles lumber, nails, and the like in 1,532 stores, and will expand its reach by opening 200 more in 2003. As announced last month, the retailer will shell out an additional 21% for capital expenditures in 2003 as it builds, remodels, and updates stores, both new and old.

Reports that Home Depot is being eaten alive by rival Lowe's(NYSE: LOW) are premature and greatly exaggerated. While Lowe's certainly deserves praise for a solid year, Home Depot hasn't just withered and died. It is cash rich with little debt, and is still the largest home-improvement retailer around. Circumstances don't warrant an obituary. To the contrary, with sentiment so against it right now, it may be a sweet time to browse the company's shares.