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J. Jill Sashays Up the Runway

Retail has been a favored sector in this moribund market, but J. Jill Group (JILL), which sells upscale women's apparel and accessories, is looking especially smart. Down to 10.20 a share on Sept. 25, the stock had rocketed to 32 by May 8. "Jill has delivered earnings way ahead of expectations, and the stock is reflecting it," says Jeffrey Klinefelter, an analyst at U.S. Bancorp Piper Jaffray, which has done investment banking for Jill in the past. Despite the stock's steep ascent, Klinefelter, who doesn't own Jill shares, says it's still undervalued. He rates Jill a strong buy, with a 12-month price target of 43, based on 25 times his 2003 earnings estimate of $1.72. This is conservative, he says, in light of Jill's considerable expansion potential. He sees 2002 earnings of $1.37, up from $1.05 in 2001.

Jill's sales and earnings took off in 1999, when it turned itself from a catalog marketer into a multichannel retailer: It has opened 55 retail outlets and put up a Web site to lure sales over the Net. In 2002's first quarter, catalog sales, which had accounted for 64% of sales, shrank to 50%. Shop sales--formerly 17% of sales--jumped to 31%, and Web sales stayed at 19%. Total 2001 sales climbed to $287.1 million, up from 2000's $246.3 million. In 2002, Klinefelter expects $345.7 million. Earnings growth, he says, will exceed 25% annually for the next three years. By Gene G. Marcial

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