NEW YORK - U.S. department store operator J.C. Penney Co Inc reported a higher-than-expected fourth-quarter profit as improved margins from cost-cutting and leaner inventories more than offset soft mall traffic and disappointing holiday sales, sending its shares up 4.4 percent.

Net profit the quarter ended January 30 fell 5.2 percent to $200 million, or 84 cents a share, from $211 million, or 94 cents a share, a year earlier.

Excluding discontinued operations but including a non-cash qualified pension plan expense, it earned 84 cents per share. Analysts on average were expecting 82 cents per share on revenue of $5.54 billion, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.

Sales during the quarter fell 3.6 percent to $5.55 billion, while sales at stores open at least a year fell 4.5 percent. During the crucial holiday season, Penney was one of the few major department store chains to post sales declines at stores open at least a year.

For fiscal 2010, Penney forecast earnings of $1.55 per share. In the first quarter, it expects net income of 16 cents to 20 cents per share, while analysts expect 18 cents. Penney expects same-store sales to be flat to slightly positive in the quarter.

Penney shares rose 4.4 percent to $27.10 in premarket trading.

(Reporting by Phil Wahba; editing by John Wallace)