By Mark Potter
LONDON, Aug 26 (Reuters) - Dutch grocer Ahold posted a small
rise in quarterly underlying sales in its main U.S. market,
bucking the trend in an industry which has been hit hard by
fears over the strength of the economic recovery.
The group, which owns Dutch market leader Albert Heijn but
makes 60 percent of its sales in the United States, said on
Thursday it expected trading to stay tough in all of its
markets, but was confident of coping thanks to a drive to lower
prices and cut costs that started in 2006, ahead of many rivals.
Chief Executive John Rishton also said he was still looking
for potential acquisitions and could be interested in some shops
of troubled U.S. rival Great Atlantic & Pacific (A&P).
However, he would not be rushed into spending Ahold's cash
pile of over 2 billion euros ($2.5 billion) and signalled it
could return more money to investors if the right opportunities
did not come along.
"We're well aware of the inefficiency of it (Ahold's balance
sheet), and we're well aware of the opportunities that sit in
the market," he told analysts on a conference call.
German retailer Tengelmann, which owns 41.2 percent of A&P,
said on Thursday it expected the U.S. group would be combined
with another retailer in the long term.
"They have some stores we'd be interested in," Rishton said,
while adding that A&P's recent decision to close 25 stores was
his "favourite form of consolidation."
A&P owns the Pathmark chain which Ahold was prevented from
buying in 2000 by U.S. competition regulators.
Ahold, which runs over 2,900 stores in 11 countries, said
second-quarter operating profit rose 18 percent to 347 million
euros ($439 million), beating an average forecast of 334 million
in a Reuters poll of 9 analysts.
However, net profit rose just 3 percent to 202 million
euros, missing analysts' average estimate of 221 million due
largely to a one-off tax charge at a Scandinavian joint venture.
A&P and another of Ahold's big U.S. rivals, Supervalu, both
recently reported big falls in quarterly underlying sales.
Financially stronger competitors Wal-Mart, the world's
biggest retailer, and Delhaize, also posted lower same-store
Ahold, which runs U.S. chains Stop & Shop, Giant-Landover
and Giant-Carlisle, said sales at U.S. stores open over a year
rose 0.5 percent excluding fuel in the 12 weeks to July 18.
That compares with a 0.1 percent fall in the first quarter
and analysts' average forecast for a 0.4 percent increase.
"These results should be well received by investors,
especially in light of recent reports for U.S. competitors,"
said Bernstein analyst Chris Hogbin.
Ahold shares were down 0.3 percent at 9.64 euros by 1320
GMT, off an early high of 9.83 euros.
Same-store sales in the Netherlands climbed 3.5 percent, in
line with expectations.
Rishton said about 1 percent of that figure could be
attributed to sales of goods related to the Holland team's
progress to the final of the soccer World Cup last month, which
helped to boost demand for beer and snacks.
Ahold, which is also looking for acquisition opportunities
in Europe, said group sales rose 10.8 percent, or 4.4 percent at
constant exchange rates, to 7.1 billion euros. The underlying
retail operating margin improved 30 basis points to 5.2 percent.
(Editing by David Cowell)