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Merrill Ups Abercrombie & Fitch to 'Buy'

Merrill Lynch upgraded Abercrombie & Fitch (ANF) to buy from neutral.

Analyst Mark Friedman says the new women's spring line is a standout with many hits and a very strong overall appeal. He notes more frequent "newness" in women's and men's clothing is the key initiative going forward and could generate incremental traffic. Friedman thinks the company is operating with healthier inventory levels that are skewed in the right segments, which should help to push comparison sales, or sales at stores open for at least a year.

Friedman sees upside earnings per share potential versus easy comparisons. He is keeping his $1.89 fiscal 2003 (Jan.) earnings per share estimate, and raised the $2.23 fiscal 2004 estimate to $2.26, assuming no changes in his assumptions for Hollister stores, A&F's surf and skate-oriented venture. He also set a $36 12-month target.

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