WRAPUP 1-Retailers' sales return to growth in southern Europe

Thu Jan 16, 2014 6:22am EST

* Carrefour sees first sales rise in Spain since 2008

* Dixons reports recovery at Greek business

* Consumer sentiment improving in southern Europe

* French hypermarkets seen growing again

* Ahold hit by tough Dutch, U.S. markets

By James Davey and Dominique Vidalon

LONDON/PARIS, Jan 16 (Reuters) - Sales at European retailers Carrefour, Metro and Dixons Retail have returned to growth in southern Europe as consumers start spending again after years of economic turmoil, austerity and job losses.

Europe's biggest retailer Carrefour said its sales in Spain grew in the fourth quarter for the first time since 2008, while French hypermarkets improved further, though at a slower pace than in the previous quarter.

Dixons, the continent's No. 2 electricals retailer, saw sales at its Greek business, Kotsovolos, rise 3 percent in the Nov. 1-Jan. 4 period, driven by its wholesale business. However, sales at retail stores that have been open for more than a year fell 8 percent.

"It's still quite tough in Greece and the market is still under pressure. We are beginning to see some evidence that it is flattening out," Chief Executive Sebastian James told reporters. "That business is going to come right."

The euro zone debt crisis began in Greece in 2010, forcing Athens to take a bailout under which the European Union and IMF demanded deep budget cuts, sending unemployment soaring and provoking violent protests. As speculation swirled in 2012 that Greece could abandon the euro, Dixons stockpiled security shutters to protect its nearly 100 stores in the country.

However, recent data suggests the economy is on the brink of a tentative recovery after a six-year recession, boosted by a rebound in tourism and rising investment and exports.

Dixons, which has been benefiting from strong demand for tablet computers, has sold off units in Turkey and Italy, but plans to stick with Greece as it is the market leader there, although the country accounts for a small part of group sales.

Shares in the British-based group were down about 4 percent by 1118 GMT after it gave a cautious outlook for the rest of the year, while Carrefour dipped 3 percent after the French retailer reported slowing growth in Brazil, its second-biggest market.

IMPROVING MOOD

Euro zone economic sentiment rose more than expected in December, as the mood improved in Spain and Italy more than in Germany and France, while industrial production rose in November at its fastest pace in nearly four years.

The southern periphery, where the crisis erased tens of thousands of jobs, saw some improvement as Spain's output returned to growth and Portugal's production rose 1.5 percent.

Metro AG, Europe's fourth-biggest retailer, said on Monday sales had grown slightly at its cash and carry businesses in Spain and Italy although like-for-like sales fell in its home market Germany.

Carrefour said quarterly sales rose 0.2 percent like-for-like in its third-largest market Spain, but the economic climate was still tough in Italy where they were down 5.9 percent.

Retailers across Europe have been struggling as shoppers' disposable income has been squeezed by subdued wage growth and the government austerity measures.

Carrefour has also been hurt by reliance on the hypermarket format it pioneered, as time-pressed customers shop more locally and online, and buy non-food goods from specialists.

On Tuesday, Carrefour's smaller French rival Casino said it expected sales at its domestic hypermarkets to return to growth in the next six months as it would reap the full benefits of earlier price cuts.

However, grocer Ahold reported a steeper-than-expected decline in fourth-quarter sales as the U.S. food market contracted and customers spent less in its Dutch home market, dragging its shares down 3.5 percent.

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