Last week, Seattle-based Nordstrom moved up the start date of its half-yearly sale for women and children from early June to May 21, saying...

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Last week, Seattle-based Nordstrom moved up the start date of its half-yearly sale for women and children from early June to May 21, saying it wants to “better align with the Memorial Day holiday-shopping period.”

But don’t think the upscale clothier is going downscale anytime soon.

Nordstrom’s top executives told analysts during a conference call Thursday they plan to weather the economic downturn by keeping a tight lid on expenses and stocking stores with merchandise that customers want — not by slashing prices.

“We have not opened up the ‘friends and family, one day only, open until midnight’ ” promotional events of some competitors, President Blake Nordstrom said. “We’re staying the course.”

Nordstrom posted a 24 percent drop in its first-quarter profit and lowered its outlook for the rest of the year, citing a challenging economic environment.

For the period ended May 3, Nordstrom’s profit fell to $119 million, or 54 cents a share, from $157 million, or 60 cents a share, a year ago.

Still, that was better than the 49 cents a share that Wall Street predicted. Nordstrom announced its results after the stock markets closed. Shares rose $1.61 to $38.90 in after-hours trading. Earlier Thursday, they closed up $1.15 at $37.29.

“Consumers in the case of Nordstrom have come to expect that there’s only going to be a handful of sales each year,” said Dan Geiman, a retail analyst at McAdams Wright Ragen in Seattle. “There’s no need to change that, as long as their inventories are fine.”

Rising food and gas prices have left consumers with less money for discretionary items at a time when they also face declining home values, a credit crunch and slowing job market.

What’s more, nearly a third of its stores are in California, where consumers are especially hard-hit by foreclosures and falling home prices.

Erik Nordstrom, president of stores, said California remains the retailer’s “toughest area,” while the South, Midwest and Northwest are holding up reasonably well.

The company opened four new full-line clothing stores during the quarter and is sticking to plans for a total of eight this year. The company also continues to look for new sites, including Manhattan.

Nordstrom reported that sales at stores open at least a year dropped 6.5 percent for the quarter, worse than the 3 to 5 percent decline that it had been expecting. Merchandise categories with above-average sales results were cosmetics, designer labels across all categories and women’s activewear and intimate apparel.

It now predicts its per-share profit for this fiscal year to range between $2.65 and $2.80, down from a previous range of $2.75 to $2.90.

“It’s just not a pretty picture out there,” said Britt Beemer, a consumer analyst with America’s Research Group in Orlando, Fla., who thinks Nordstrom should be “a little more promotional.”

“Maybe not be promotional for the world, but do some special events for customers,” Beemer said. “Consumers are the most bargain-driven I’ve seen in 29 years of doing research. These times are extraordinary.”

Patricia Edwards, a money manager at Wentworth, Hauser and Violich in Seattle, said earlier this week she’s been getting more phone calls than usual from Nordstrom salespeople telling her about new merchandise in stores.

“They have certainly stepped it up,” said Edwards, whose firm manages $14.8 billion in assets, including about 700,000 Nordstrom shares. “Everything is not roses right now for Nordstrom, but they’re doing what they can.”

Nordstrom said its inventory per square foot — a key measure of its ability to buy merchandise that can then be sold — was down 7 percent at quarter’s end on a year-over-year basis. Excluding the 2007 sale of its Façonnable business, the decline was 4 percent.

“I think they’ve done a really good job of buying the merchandise that people want, and if they hadn’t done a good job, we would know that,” said Jennifer Black, a Lake Oswego, Ore., retail analyst who advises large institutional investors.

Shareholders might be able to learn more about Nordstrom’s strategy for weathering the downturn when the retailer holds its annual meeting Tuesday at Benaroya Hall in Seattle. Its stock has been trading between $55 and $28 a share in the last 52 weeks.