Citing clearance inventory levels that declined from last year, Talbots Inc., Hingham, MA, last week reported July sales of $76.3 million, flat with the same period a year ago, and said comparable-store sales slipped 7.9 percent for the month. The company cited strong sales of its regular-priced merchandise to account for the clearance inventory decline, which cut into comparable-store sales but has given the specialty retailer and cataloger of women's apparel a positive earnings outlook for the second quarter overall. For the second quarter ended Aug. 1, the cataloger expects to report earnings in the range of 2 cents to 4 cents a share on a diluted basis, well in excess of the street's current estimates, which put Talbots' quarter at a loss of 8 cents per diluted share. Talbots' forecast also tops the company's 1997 second quarter, when it reported a loss of 35 cents per diluted share. Arnold B. Zetcher, president and CEO at Talbots, said in a prepared statement that the company is pleased by customers' response to its merchandise through the spring season, adding that he expects a performance for the first half that is “well above both last year and our expectations earlier this year.” For the most recent quarter, overall sales increased 9 percent to $267.7 million, up from $244.9 million in the year-ago period. Talbots' catalog sales climbed 10 percent to $32.3 million, while retail sales rose 9 percent to $235.4 million.