Costco Wholesale saw its fiscal third-quarter profit jump 32 percent as price-conscious consumers turned to its stores for bargains on everything...

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Costco Wholesale saw its fiscal third-quarter profit jump 32 percent as price-conscious consumers turned to its stores for bargains on everything from fresh fruit to paper towels, the Issaquah-based retailer said Thursday.

For the three months that ended May 11, Costco’s profit hit $295.1 million, or 67 cents a share, up from $224 million, or 49 cents a share, a year ago.

Costco’s per-share profit was better than the 65 cents that Wall Street had expected, yet investors seemed less than enthusiastic, sending shares down 26 cents Thursday to close at $72.98.

Analysts expressed concern over Costco’s outlook for the fiscal fourth quarter already under way. In a conference call, Chief Financial Officer Richard Galanti declined to embrace Wall Street’s prediction for a per-share profit of $1.01, describing it as “on the high end, if not too high.”

Dan Geiman, an analyst with McAdams Wright Ragen in Seattle, pointed to Costco’s tempered expectations in reiterating his “hold” rating on the stock.

“While the quarter was a positive surprise, management held expectations in check, suggesting that margin improvements going forward might not live up to the expectations of some,” Geiman wrote.

The company’s gross margin improved to 10.54 percent from 10.38 a year ago, partly because of a more restrictive return policy on electronics. Sales rose 13 percent to $16.6 billion, including $350.9 million in membership fees.

Food and sundries posted some of the strongest results, while discretionary items such as electronics lagged, Galanti said, noting that consumers held off on upgrading their televisions, digital cameras and computers.

“I think everybody’s got a bunch of the stuff,” he said. “You can get a great laptop now under $1,000, [and] even though it is under $1,000, you are not just rushing out to get the new and latest and greatest, because your old one does movies and Internet, e-mail just fine.”

A tough retail environment nationally has prompted upscale brands to find additional outlets for their merchandise, giving Costco’s no-frills outlets some products that typically could only be found in upscale department stores and specialty shops, he said.

“There’s goods out there, and they’ve got to get rid of them,” Galanti said. “We’ll take it all.”

Same-store sales, a key gauge of retailer performance that measures sales at stores open at least a year, rose 4 percent in the U.S., not counting increases in the price of gas. (Costco said the average price for a gallon of gas was up 20 percent on a year-over-year basis.)

International same-store sales rose 6 percent, excluding the effects of a weak U.S. dollar. Costco has 538 warehouse stores in the U.S., Canada, the U.K., Korea, Taiwan, Japan and Mexico.

As for the economic-stimulus checks that U.S. taxpayers have begun receiving in the mail, Galanti said they’re not likely to bolster Costco’s bottom line. “We really don’t expect a lot from it, and we’re not doing anything to promote it,” he said.

Sales in California, where consumers have been especially hard-hit by the U.S. housing-market crisis, are “trending upward” from the lows reached in previous months, Galanti said, suggesting that the worst might be over.

Still, David Schick, an analyst with Stifel Nicolaus & Co., said in a research note that Costco might fall victim to waning consumer confidence throughout the U.S.

“It’s hard to poke too many holes in this story, but we do believe [the] high-end consumer is showing cracks, and that could continue to hurt durable sales at the company,” he wrote.

Information from The Associated Press is included in this report.

Amy Martinez: 206-464-2923 or amartinez@seattletimes.com