(Adds background on marketing strategy, details on comparable sales growth)
NEW YORK, Feb 27 (Reuters) - Macy's Inc on Tuesday reported greater-than-expected growth in same-store sales for the fourth quarter and forecast a return to annual comparable sales growth in 2018, sending its shares up more than 11 percent in early trading.
The biggest U.S. department store chain, which has become emblematic of the decline of brick-and-mortar retail in the face of Amazon.com Inc, has not seen comparable sales grow on an annual basis for three years.
Benefiting from a broadly strong U.S. holiday shopping season, Macy's also reported better-than-expected quarterly profit on revenue that was in-line with estimates.
The mid-range retailer has closed more than 100 stores since 2015 and slashed thousands of jobs as mall foot traffic has plummeted as customers defect to online and fast-fashion sellers.
Fourth-quarter sales were helped by a new loyalty program, a fashion-forward marketing revamp, improvements to Macy's mobile app and a push to roll out new private-label items more quickly.
Sales at Macy's stores open more than 12 months, including in departments licensed to third parties, rose 1.4 percent in the quarter ended Feb. 3, well above the average analyst estimate of a 0.31 percent increase, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.
Macy's is the first major retailer to report results from the full holiday quarter. Previously reported comparable sales growth in November and December lagged rivals, suggesting Macys lost market share during the key shopping months and may struggle to maintain momentum.
For fiscal 2018, Macy's said it expects comparable sales on both an owned and an owned-plus-licensed basis to be flat to up 1 percent, and total sales to be down between 0.5 percent and 2 percent.
Comparable sales fell 2.2 percent in fiscal 2017 on an owned basis and 1.9 percent on an owned-plus-licensed basis.
REAL ESTATE SELL-OFF
Macy's, which has existed in some form for more than 150 years, is struggling to right itself and has rented or sold real estate, even looking at unloading floors at its storied Herald Square flagship in New York.
It has also grown its off-price Backstage brand launched in 2015 that competes with TJ Maxx owner TJX Cos Inc. Macy's plans to expand that business aggressively in 2018.
Macy's partnered with Brookfield Asset Management in 2016 to let the real estate developer come up with plans to redevelop all or part of 50 properties. Macy's said on Tuesday that agreements have been reached for nine assets which, if sold, would be worth about $50 million.
Gross margin, which measures how much the company makes on each dollar of sales, slipped slightly to 38.2 percent in the fourth quarter from 38.3 percent a year earlier.
The company had previously said gross margins would fall 30 to 80 basis points in the quarter, because of free shipping under its new loyalty program that rewards high spenders.
Macy's reported adjusted earnings per share of $2.82 for the quarter, excluding restructuring charges and charges related to the U.S. tax overhaul, beating the average analyst estimate of $2.71 per share.
Revenue rose 1.8 percent to $8.67 billion, in line with estimates of $8.68 billion.
Before Tuesday, Macy's shares were up more than 50 percent since November, but are lower than a mid-2015 peak of more than $73.
Shares of rival JC Penney Company Inc rose more than 10 percent while Kohl's Corp rose more than 3 percent. (Reporting by Meredith Mazzilli Editing by Franklin Paul and Nick Zieminski)