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By John Letzing

Of DOW JONES NEWSWIRES

SAN FRANCISCO -(Dow Jones)- Amazon.com Inc. (AMZN) posted a sharp decline in quarterly profit Thursday, as the online retailer continued to emphasize growth at the expense of margins.

Amazon, of Seattle, said its first-quarter revenue rose 34% compared to the same period last year, while profit slipped 35%.

Amazon has expanded well beyond its roots as an Internet book seller, and has turned in recent quarterly performances that regularly feature sharp sales increases coupled with heavy spending that puts a crimp on profits.

The company said Thursday its operating margin in the first quarter was 1.5%. That compares to 3.3% in the same period last year.

However, in terms of gross profit margin Amazon turned in its sharpest improvement in several years, according to Tiburon Research Group analyst Rob Wilson.

"It's the best year-over-year gross margin improvement since at least 2005," Wilson said. "That's impressive."

Amazon posted a profit for the first quarter of $130 million, or 28 cents a share, down from $201 million, or 44 cents a share, a year earlier. Analysts polled by Thomson Reuters were expecting a 7-cent per-share profit.

Net sales rose to $13.19 billion. Gross margin widened to 24% from 22.8%.

Amazon warned it could post anything between a loss of $260 million and a profit of $40 million for the current quarter, while net sales should be between $11.9 billion and $13.3 billion. Analysts have been looking for about $12.8 billion in sales for the period, according to Thomson Reuters.

Shares rose 14% to $223.87 in after-hours trading.

Amazon has invested aggressively in new shipping centers, data centers, online video content and its own line of gadgets including the Kindle Fire tablet.

Expenses related to fulfillment jumped to nearly $1.3 billion from $855 million in the first quarter, Amazon said, while technology and content expenses rose to $945 million from $579 million.

The company has also spent money on efforts to make operations more efficient, as demonstrated by its $775 million acquisition of robot maker Kiva Systems Inc. announced last month.

During a conference call with the media, Amazon Chief Financial Officer Tom Szkutak acknowledged that the company's heavy spending has been "impacting our bottom line results."

But he said businesses such as the Kindle line of devices are performing well. He declined to specify how many Kindle devices the company has sold to date.

Data released by comScore Thursday showed the Kindle Fire has gained a significant amount of market share since it was released in November of last year. Among tablets based on Google Inc.'s (GOOG) Android software, the Kindle Fire saw its market share rise to 54.4% in February from 29.4% in December, according to comScore.

However, Apple Inc.'s (AAPL) iPad, which runs on Apple's own software, remains far and away the dominant tablet on the market.

-By John Letzing, Dow Jones Newswires; 415-765-8230; john.letzing@dowjones.com

-Drew FitzGerald contributed to this article.

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

April 26, 2012 17:37 ET (21:37 GMT)

Copyright (c) 2012 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

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