UPDATE 2-Delhaize impresses with strong U.S., Belgian sales
* Q4 revenue 5.34 billion euros vs expected 5.33 bln
* Q4 rev up 0.1 pct, up 3 pct at identical exchange rates
* Volumes up in U.S., inflation helps in Belgium
* FY op profit 770 mln euros vs guidance of at least 755 mln
* Shares gain 8 pct, strongest of European retailers (Adds shares, analyst comment)
BRUSSELS, Jan 23 (Reuters) - Belgian supermarket group Delhaize surpassed expectations for U.S. and Belgian sales growth in the fourth quarter, striking an unusually positive note in a suffering sector and boosting its shares more than 8 percent.
The group, which has about 3,500 stores worldwide and makes about 60 percent of its revenue in the United States, said its U.S. customers bought more as prices dipped, while inflation and solid year-end volumes helped it in Belgium.
Delhaize's report was in contrast to last week's from Dutch rival Ahold, which has stores in the U.S. northeast and is pushing into Belgium. It reported a steeper-than-expected fall in fourth-quarter sales as the U.S. food market contracted and the Dutch spent less.
Delhaize said underlying operating profit for the year reached 770 million euros, on a provisional basis, having previously said it would be at least 755 million.
Fernand de Boer, analyst at brokerage Petercam, said the like-for-like sales growth figures in the United States and Belgium were good.
"This comes after disappointing figures from Ahold," de Boer noted. "Delhaize is also indicating higher cash flow than expected and its new CEO has reassured that Delhaize will be disciplined on capital and costs."
He added that the shares were also cheap, at a discount of some 20 percent to peers. The stock had been trading on a multiple of 11.1 times forecast 2013 earnings and 11 times 2014, according to Reuters data, compared with 15.7 and 13.2 times for Ahold.
Delhaize shares rose as much as 8.9 percent to a four-and-a-half month high of 49.76 euros in early trading, making it by far the star performer in the STOXX Europe 600 retail index, which was down 0.1 percent.
Delhaize, which will publish full yearly results on March 13, said fourth-quarter revenue inched up by by 0.1 percent, or 3.0 percent at identical exchange rates, to 5.34 billion euros ($7.2 billion).
Analysts had on average been expecting revenue of 5.33 billion, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S estimates.
In the United States, where it operates Food Lion chains in the southeast and mid-Atlantic states, and higher-end Hannaford stores from New York to Maine, quarterly revenue grew 2.8 percent on a like-for-like basis.
Delhaize said its U.S. prices on average fell by 0.4 percent due to promotions and a low inflationary environment, but shoppers bought more at its stores.
In Belgium, comparable store sales growth was 2.4 percent, driven by retail inflation and solid year-end sales.
Comparable sales in southeast Europe slipped 0.6 percent, with a strong performance in Greece, expansion in Romania and weakness in Serbia.
Analysts had on average been expected like-for-like U.S. sales growth of 1.8 percent and in Belgium of 1.0 percent, according to a Thomson Reuters poll.
A series of U.S. retailers have reported sparse sales or cut earnings forecasts as they engaged in the most promotional holiday season since the recession, trying to outdo one another with deep discounts to lure shoppers.
Kroger Co, the biggest U.S. supermarket operator, last month took a cautious stance on business at the close of 2013, with a cut in food stamps for lower-income families taking effect and reduced spending on discretionary items. ($1 = 0.7372 euros)
(Editing by Matt Driskill and David Holmes)
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