* Q4 operating profit 328 mln euros, vs 337 mln poll
* Q4 net profit 270 mln euros, vs 241 mln poll
* Dividend raised 38 pct to 0.40 euro
* Shares slip 0.6 pct
By Sara Webb
AMSTERDAM, March 1 Dutch grocer Royal
Ahold NV warned that first-quarter sales growth would
reflect the difficult economic environment after a slow start to
2012 as a weak domestic economy and high fuel prices in the
United States constrained consumer spending.
Ahold, which owns leading Dutch supermarket chain Albert
Heijn and makes about 60 percent of its sales in the United
States, said shoppers would remain cost-conscious, and
competition in the food retail industry was likely to be
"We've seen slower growth in the first couple of weeks,"
Dick Boer, chief executive, told reporters on Thursday after
Ahold announced a slightly weaker-than-expected fourth-quarter
"We anticipate sales growth in the first quarter will
reflect the difficult economic conditions, as well as the timing
of Easter ... We expect 2012 to be another challenging year for
the food retail industry".
Official government forecasts on Thursday showed the Dutch
budget deficit will remain above European limits until 2015 and
state debt will rise further in the absence of policy change,
highlighting the need for extra spending cuts.
The Netherlands has been in recession since July 2011 and
the Dutch parliament on Wednesday warned of the possible loss of
the Netherlands' triple-A credit rating.
In the United States, high fuel prices are keeping a lid on
consumer spending, Boer said.
Boer said Ahold would take further steps to improve its
capital structure by investing in growth, including through
He reiterated Ahold wants to expand in the United States and
Europe, but would also consider acquisitions in those
high-growth emerging markets with a high population density and
where Ahold could exploit its business models.
Earlier this week, Ahold said it would acquire bol.com, the
biggest non-food online retailer in the Netherlands, for 350
million euros ($468.20 million), expanding its internet store
front to include books, DVDs and toys.
Bol.com, which started in 1999, is the most-visited retail
website in the Netherlands with 3.4 million active customers,
and had total net sales of 355 million euros in 2011.
Ahold also said it plans to cut debt and wants to reduce its
substantial cash pile, returning cash to shareholders - for
example with higher dividends. It did not rule out another share
buyback for now.
"While the company did not announce a new share buyback this
time, we believe there remains room to announce one in due
course," SNS Securities said in a research note.
"Moreover, the current 1 billion euro share buyback has not
been completed yet," it said, adding that Ahold has bought back
928 million euros so far.
Ahold reported an 11.2 percent rise in quarterly operating
profit to 328 million euros ($439 million), slightly below
analysts' forecasts for 337 million euros, and held in check by
minor impairment charges on some of its stores in the United
Net profit for the quarter was 270 million euros, up 75 and
well above a forecast for 241 million.
Shares in the group fell 0.6 percent to 10.32 euros by 0837