The usually reliable plus-size shopper stayed away in the spring, leading apparel retailer Charming Shoppes Inc. to report a first-quarter loss yesterday after posting the worst sales drop in established stores in at least four years.

The Bensalem parent of Lane Bryant, Fashion Bug and Catherines stores said it marked the first such shift it had seen in years. Since plus-size women typically do not have that many choices when it comes to clothes shopping, they usually can be counted on even in a weak economy.

This time, though, it was different. The retailer said less-affluent plus-size customers were feeling the pinch more than usual.

"These consumers in their socioeconomic positions are feeling the brunt in a much greater degree than what is happening to other Americans," chief executive officer Dorrit Bern said in a conference call with analysts. "We will just have to ride it out."

Shares fell 27 cents, or 4.79 percent, to close at $5.37 in Nasdaq trading.

March's performance was particularly poor, driving a 13 percent drop in sales at stores open at least a year - a key metric of retailer performance. It was the worst showing since 2004.

The quarter had double-digit percentage decreases in customer traffic across the chains.

The retailer posted a loss of $34.46 million in the quarter, or 30 cents a share, compared with a profit of $26.3 million, or 20 cents a share, a year earlier.

First-quarter results included after-tax charges of $2.2 million, or 2 cents a share, related to company consolidation and streamlining of operations. It also included a $2.4 million charge, or 2 cents a share, for advisory and legal fees related to a proxy fight that was settled May 8.

Excluding these items, Charming Shoppes would have had a $657,000 profit, or a penny a share, for continuing operations. Net sales fell 8 percent to $641.3 million in the quarter. Analysts polled by Thomson Financial expected a loss of 6 cents a share in the quarter, on sales of $725.2 million.

Looking ahead, the retailer expects to post second-quarter earnings that range from breaking even to a loss of 2 cents a share on sales of $625 million to $640 million for continuing operations.