* Q4 sales 7.47 bln euros vs 7.76 bln euros in Reuters poll
* U.S. like-for-like sales down 2.1 pct
* Dutch shoppers spent less per visit
* Shares among biggest fallers of European blue-chips
By Philip Blenkinsop
BRUSSELS, Jan 16 Dutch grocer Ahold
reported a steeper-than-expected decline in fourth-quarter
sales, as the U.S. food market contracted and customers in the
Netherlands spent less per visit to its shops.
The group, which makes three-fifths of its revenue in the
United States, said on Thursday sales fell by 4.2 percent, or
1.1 percent at constant exchange rates, to 7.47 billion euros
That compared with analysts' expectations averaging 7.76
billion euros, with a range of 7.43 billion to 8.41 billion, in
a Reuters poll.
Ahold shares were trading down 3.5 percent at 12.70 euros at
1043 GMT, making them the second-weakest performers of Europe's
300 largest blue-chip stocks and shedding gains of the
past four weeks.
Sales had been expected to decline a year on from the boost
due to Hurricane Sandy, which struck northeastern U.S. states in
late October 2012. Consumers stocked up with provisions before
the wind and rain struck and Ahold's outlets were also among the
first to reopen after the storm.
However, the group, which operates the Stop&Shop and Giant
chains from Virginia to Massachusetts, said like-for-like U.S.
sales excluding fuel declined by 2.1 percent in October to
December quarter - more than analysts' forecasts for a decline
of less than 1 percent and compared with an increase of 0.6
percent in the previous three months.
U.S. food retailing has relatively few truly national
players, but competition is fierce from more general
merchandiser Wal-Mart and discount and convenience
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.
Ahold said the U.S. food market overall had contracted,
without elaborating. Analysts say more cash-conscious consumers
are keen to cut waste by buying only what they need and stocking
A series of U.S. retailers have reported sparse sales or
have 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.
"For the U.S. market conditions are tough, but they (Ahold)
are also losing some market share," said Fernand de Boer, retail
analyst at Petercam.
Ahold said its underlying U.S. operating margin would be
broadly in line with the performance during the rest of the
year, supported by a cost reduction programme. It did not give a
figure, but will when it issues full-year results on Feb. 27.
In the Netherlands, where Ahold operates the market leader
Albert Heijn chain, identical sales fell by 1.0 percent after
dropping by 0.2 percent in the third quarter.
The group said Albert Heijn's market share dipped, as it had
in the third quarter, but that the underlying operating margin
should be slightly higher.
"For the Netherlands, there is no inflation and the market
is tough.... They benefited always from impulse buying, but
shoppers are sticking more to their shopping list and some are
trading down," de Boer said.
Despite tough condition, the Ahold shares benefited last
year from plans to return 3 billion euros to shareholders by the
end of this year.
Belgian peer Delhaize, which has a large U.S.
presence, will release its sales figures next Thursday.