Issaquah-based Costco Wholesale (COST) announced higher fourth-quarter and annual profits as consumers searched for bargains on groceries and gasoline.

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PORTLAND — Warehouse-club operator Costco Wholesale said today that its fourth-quarter profit rose 6.8 percent as consumers shopped for bargains in the tough economy.

Shoppers flocked to the warehouse clubs for necessities such as food and sundries but shied away from big-ticket items such as furniture and jewelry, the company said.

The Issaquah-based company said net income for the 16-week fiscal quarter rose to $397.8 million, or 90 cents a share, from $372.4 million, or 83 cents a share, a year earlier. Excluding a charge related to food and gas price increases in the U.S. and a charge related to a litigation settlement, net income was 97 cents a share for the quarter.

Revenue rose 12.8 percent to $23.1 billion from $20.48 billion last year.

Analysts polled by Thomson Reuters, on average, had predicted a profit of 93 cents a share on revenue of $23.05 billion.

Costco Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer Richard Galanti said the company’s core business was doing “just fine” despite the challenge of juggling fluctuating gas prices and inflationary costs for the business.

Costco said this summer that it had been trying to hold off on passing along inflationary costs to consumers. Despite this move, company leaders said the majority of its departments showed gross margin improvements. However, some ancillary business, such as one-hour photo or food courts, showed year-over-year decreases.

The company also reported today that same-store sales, a key indicator of retailer performance, rose 9 percent during the quarter. That included 9 percent growth within the U.S. and 11 percent internationally. In the fiscal year, same-store sales rose 8 percent, including a 6 percent jump in the U.S. and 15 percent internationally.

Galanti said consumers tend to spend more at Costco to achieve savings than they might at grocery stores or discounters. But the company is seeing its growing membership shifting spending habits slightly.

“I think what you’re seeing is that our members are coming in and they are maybe being a little bit more disciplined,” he said.

“Our savings are so extreme that you can’t not come there. I’m biased, mind you.”

Warehouse club operators, which offer low prices on a wide range of items and groceries in bulk, have fared better than other retailers as consumers cut back amid turmoil in the financial sector and rising prices for daily necessities.

Stifel Nicolaus & Co. analyst David Schick wrote in a research note that warehouse clubs and Costco remain “one of the better-positioned sectors in retail. As the financial crisis continues to unfold, we are still measuring the potential impact to warehouse clubs.”

Stifel maintained a “hold” rating on Costco.

Goldman Sachs Global Investment Research analysts said while they were disappointed in the margins, they were impressed by sales improvements at Costco.

“What we like about the story is their share gain potential in today’s tough spending environment as consumers redirect a greater share of their wallet to Costco — September sales provide evidence of just this,” according to a Goldman Sachs note.

Costco also reported that for its fiscal year, profit rose 19 percent to $1.28 billion, or $2.89 a share, from $1.08 billion, or $2.37 a share, a year ago. Revenue for the year rose 13 percent to $72.48 billion.

“We are hopeful that we can continue to build and grow our business this year and certainly feel that we’ll gain market share during the course of it,” Galanti said.

He also said the company is comfortable with Wall Street’s expectations that Costco will earn 64 cents for its first quarter. But Costco is approaching fiscal 2009 “very conservatively,” expecting to earn $3 to $3.25 a share for the year, roughly in line with Wall Street expectations.

But given major uncertainty in the market, Galanti was hesitant to look too deeply at the short and long-term possibilities.

“We think whatever happens out there we’re well-positioned to do better than the average, and we’ll see what happens,” he said.

Costco stock closed down 74 cents, or 1.3 percent, at $57.06 after being up as much as $1 earlier in the session.