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 makes about 60 percent of its sales in the
United States, also said on Thursday its Dutch business was
boosted by Holland's progress to the final of the soccer World
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.
Chief Executive John Rishton said he expected trading
conditions to remain tough in all of Ahold's markets, but was
confident it would cope, thanks to a drive to lower prices and
cut costs that started in 2006, ahead of many rivals.
"The current environment that we're operating in is one that
I'm comfortable with," he told Reuters.
"We are in a very strong position because of the
repositioning activities that we have taken and the strength of
our balance sheet, whereas others are in a more difficult
position on both of those fronts."
Two of Ahold's main U.S. rivals, Supervalu and Great
Atlantic & Pacific Tea both recently reported big falls in
quarterly underlying sales.
Financially stronger competitors Wal-Mart, the world's
biggest retailer, and Belgium's Delhaize, also posted lower
same-store U.S. sales this month.
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, which have lagged the STOXX 600 European
retail index by 2 percent this year, were down 0.6 percent at
9.61 euros by 0903 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 runs over 2,900 stores in 11 countries, said
group sales were up 10.8 percent, or 4.4 percent at constant
exchange rates, to 7.1 billion euros, while the underlying
retail operating margin improved 30 basis points to 5.2 percent.
Rishton said the firm was continuing to look for acquisition
opportunities and felt under no pressure from shareholders to
spend its cash pile over 2 billion euros.
(Editing by David Cowell)