Dhanya Skariachan

Staples Inc reported quarterly results that topped analyst estimates and forecast a sales rise in the current quarter as trends improve at its North American retail business.

The top office products retailer said sales at its North American stores open at least a year, or same-store sales, were flat in the third quarter after posting declines since last December.

We're increasingly optimistic about the future, Chief Executive Ron Sargent said in a statement, mainly citing the improvements at its catalog businesses and its North American retail unit.

The North American retail and Staples business delivery (sales) trajectory are encouraging, J.P. Morgan analyst Christopher Horvers said in a note to clients. He added that the profit outlook for the current quarter seems low compared with the company's sales view.

Office-supply retailers have suffered in the tough economy as both corporate customers and other shoppers have curbed their appetite for nonessential items, especially expensive goods like furniture and business machines.

Staples said it expects fourth-quarter earnings of 36 cents to 38 cents a share before one-time items, and a sales rise of 1 percent to 3 percent. Analysts on average were expecting 37 cents a share, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.

Third-quarter net earnings rose to $269.4 million, or 37 cents a share, from $156.7 million, or 22 cents a share, a year earlier.

Excluding one-time items, it earned 39 cents a share in the quarter, which ended on October 31, beating analysts' average forecast of 38 cents.

Sales fell 6 percent to $6.52 billion but beat analysts' average estimate of $6.45 billion.

In late October, smaller rivals Office Depot Inc and OfficeMax Inc posted sharply lower quarterly sales. OfficeMax said it will plan cautiously for 2010 as it waits for the economy and white-collar employment to perk up.

With its acquisition of Dutch rival Corporate Express in July 2008, Staples stands to gain more than its rivals from any improvement in spending at small businesses and other corporate clients.

The company reaffirmed its expectations for cost savings of $300 million from the Corporate Express acquisition.

Staples' stock, which has risen 14 percent in the last six months, closed at $23.32 Monday on Nasdaq.

(Reporting by Dhanya Skariachan, editing by Christopher Kaufman, Derek Caney and John Wallace)