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* Q3 operating profit at 25.5 bln yen
* Keeps annual op prof outlook at Y210-220 bln
* Shares fall 7 pct in 2012 vs. 23 pct benchmark surge
By James Topham
TOKYO, Jan 11 (Reuters) - Japan's Aeon Co posted a 5.5 percent fall in nine-month operating profit as soft consumer demand and increased competition at its general merchandise and grocery stores dented revenues, but the company maintained its annual profit forecast.
Aeon, which competes at home with Seven & I Holdings Co and Seiyu Group, the Japanese arm of Wal-Mart Stores Inc, reported on Friday an March-November operating profit of 96.2 billion yen ($1.1 billion). For the September to November quarter, Aeon posted an operating profit of 25.5 billion yen.
The quarterly figures were supported by a rise in profit at affiliate Aeon Credit Service Co and from a low baseline after shoppers cut back on purchases in the same period in 2011 after stockpiling goods in the immediate months following that year's March 11 earthquake and tsunami.
The owner of Aeon Retail supermarkets as well as slew of other retail formats from bicycle shops to shopping malls maintained its operating profit outlook for the year to February at 210-220 billion yen, against the average estimate of 204.8 billion yen in a poll of 13 analysts by Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.
On Tuesday, rival Seven & I booked a 4.8 percent gain in quarterly operating profit as higher profits from its core 7-Eleven convenience stores were boosted by stronger income figures at its other retail formats.
Japanese convenience store chains, with their expanded outlets and offerings, including daily essentials like vegetables and cooking oils as well as lower-priced private-label goods, have helped pull customers away from other retail outlets.
Shares of Aeon fell 7 percent in 2012 calendar year, compared with a 23 percent surge in the benchmark Nikkei average . Before the earnings announcement, Aeon settled 0.7 percent higher, against the Nikkei's 1.4 rise.