Department store operator J.C. Penney Co Inc posted a higher-than-expected profit on Friday, but said its loss in the current quarter would be deeper than Wall Street estimates as shoppers hold off on spending.

Penney's performance in its fourth quarter, which ended on January 31, benefited from the company's efforts to cut inventory and expenses during the weakest holiday shopping season in nearly four decades.

Net profit fell 51 percent to $211 million, or 95 cents per share, from $430 million, or $1.93 per share, a year earlier.

Earnings from continuing operations were 94 cents per share, topping the analysts' average forecast of 92 cents, according to Reuters Estimates.

Net sales fell nearly 10 percent to $5.76 billion, hurt by deep discounts and consumers shunning discretionary purchases in a recession. Same-store sales fell 10.8 percent.

The company forecast a loss of 20 cents to 30 cents per share in the current first quarter on a sales decline of 10 percent to 13 percent. Analysts were expecting a loss of 18 cents per share on revenue of $3.76 billion.

Penney also shifted the location of its annual analyst meeting to New York from its hometown of Plano, Texas, citing the recession's impact on many firms' travel budgets. This year's meeting is scheduled for April 22.

The company's shares fell 7 cents to $14.85 in trading before the market opened.

(Reporting by Martinne Geller; Editing by Dave Zimmerman and Lisa Von Ahn)