Four major U.S. retailers said yesterday they posted fiscal fourth-quarter earnings gains, with F. W. Woolworth Co. reporting a 72.4 percent increase.

Federated Department Stores Inc. said its earnings climbed 9.7 percent, and May Department Stores Co. reported net income grew 16.6 percent from a year earlier. Associated Dry Goods said its earnings for the year were up 12.4.

New York-based Woolworth, the nation's fourth-largest retailer, said net income for the three months ended Jan. 31 rose to $100 million ($3.30 a share) from $58 million ($1.91). Sales were $1.57 billion compared with $1.55 billion a year ago.

For its fiscal year, Woolworth reported a loss of $353 million on sales of $5.12 billion, compared with profit of $82 million ($2.64), on sales of $5.07 billion. The loss included a charge of $398 million for discontinued operations and net losses of $37 million on those operations prior to the decision to discontinue them.

Federated, ranked fifth among the nation's retailers and based in Cincinnati, said its fourth-quarter profit climbed to $142.4 million ($2.93) from $129.8 million ($2.68) a year ago. Sales were $2.6 billion, up 12.9 percent from $2.3 billion.

But for the 12 months, Federated said net income fell 9.9 percent to $232.7 million ($4.79) from $258.3 million ($5.33). The year's sales were $7.7 billion, up 8.9 percent from $7.01 billion.

May Department Stores, based in St. Louis and ranked eighth, said its profit for the quarter ended Jan. 29 rose to $82.9 million ($2.85) from $71.1 million ($2.43) a year earlier. Sales climbed 13 percent to $1.25 billion from $1.11 billion.

For the full year, May Department Stores' profit rose to $141.7 million ($4.87) from $126.2 million ($4.31). Sales rose to $3.65 billion from $3.40 billion.

May Department Stores said its full-year improvement was led by a strong performance in the fourth quarter.

Associated Dry Goods Corp. reported a 12.4 percent gain in earnings to $4.41 a share for the fiscal year ended Jan. 29, up from $4.17 the previous year. Net income was $78.41 million on sales of $3.189 billion from $69.77 million the previous year on sales of $2.751 million. The sales gain was 15.9 percent.

Final quarter profit was up 24.3 percent to $64.6 million ($3.55) on sales of $1.094 billion from $51.9 million ($2.86) a year earlier on sales of $997.18 million. The sales gain was 9.7 percent.

Associated operates 14 quality department stores, including Lord & Taylor, plus Caldor discount stores in the northeast and Sycamore Specialty stores in the Midwest.