UPDATE 1-Delhaize cuts into dividend to fight price battle

Thu Mar 7, 2013 1:47am EST

* Q4 adj op profit 204 mln euros vs 209 mln expected

* Proposes dividend of 1.40 euros per share, below forecast

* Margin increases in Belgium from previous quarter

* To open 200 new stores in 2013

BRUSSELS, March 7 (Reuters) - Belgium-based supermarket group Delhaize said on Thursday it would pay a lower dividend this year than last, as it focused on refurbishing its stores and offering lower prices to retain its customers.

Delhaize, which in the United States operates the Food Lion and Hannaford supermarkets, proposes paying a gross dividend of 1.40 euros ($1.82) per share, lower than 1.56 expected on average by six banks and brokerages polled by Reuters.

That is also below the 1.76 euros it paid out to its shareholders last year.

Offering lower prices to its consumers in the United States, where it makes most of its revenues, sent underlying operating margins there down to 3.3 percent.

"The decision to decrease the dividend this year is a clear example of Delhaize Group's commitment to maintaining its financial strength and achieving revenue growth," Chief Executive Pierre-Olivier Beckers said in a written statement.

In Belgium, operating margin was 4.0 percent in the fourth quarter, down from 4.9 percent last year but up from the 3.5 percent seen in the third quarter.

Delhaize said it would open 200 new supermarkets in the year, mostly in Eastern Europe and Asia, where it saw revenues and margins increase in the quarter.

Underlying operating profit for the fourth quarter came in at 204 million euros, just below the 209 million euros expected in a Reuters poll of seven analysts.

Dutch peer Ahold which reported results last week saw an increase in operating margins in the United States, albeit supported by a $26 million benefit from settlement of litigation with Visa and MasterCard. ($1 = 0.7692 euros) (Reporting by Robert-Jan Bartunek; Editing by Ben Deighton)