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    Costco Profits Rise 24 Percent

    Gas sales, boost in membership push quarterly earnings to almost $300 million.

    SEATTLE -- Costco Wholesale Corp.'s earnings rose 24 percent in its latest quarter, lifted by brisk sales, a boost in membership and reduced expenses, analysts said, according to the Associated Press.

    The nation's largest wholesale club operator posted fourth-quarter earnings of $296.8 million, up from $239.4 million for the same period in 2003. That beat the company's forecast of 56 cents to 57 cents per share, and topped the average analyst estimate in a Thomson First Call survey of 58 cents per share.

    "Costco's doing a phenomenal job of merchandizing, of catering to that higher-end consumer," said Mitchell Kaiser, an analyst with Piper Jaffray.

    For the quarter ended Aug. 29, Costco's net sales increased 11 percent to $14.83 billion from $13.42 billion a year ago. Sales at stores open more than a year grew 8 percent.

    Bob Nelson, Costco's vice president of finance and investor relations, said there weren't any standout products flying off the shelves. "We're seeing across-the-board strength in many of our regions and in many of our categories," he said.

    Analysts said some of the sales growth likely stemmed from gas tanks at Costco, where per-gallon prices can be anywhere from a few cents to 30 cents lower than other gas stations.

    "Although Costco doesn't have a sign on the street saying what they charge, you can pretty much guess they charge less than the station down the street," said Dan Geiman, an analyst with McAdams Wright Ragen.

    Issaquah, Wash.-based Costco operates 442 warehouse stores in North America, Asia and Britain. It plans to open 10 new warehouses by the end of the calendar year, and 27 stores in the coming fiscal year.

    For the fiscal year, Costco earned $882 million, or $1.85 a share, on $48.1 billion in revenue, up from $721 million, or $1.53 a share, on revenue of $42.5 billion a year ago.

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