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Tesco turnaround gains momentum with sales growth

U.K. supermarket Tesco on Wednesday said it returned to sales growth in its fiscal fourth quarter and said it was confident that it would continue to "rebuild profitability."

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Sales growth in the U.K. on a like-for-like sales was 0.9 percent in the fourth quarter compared to a contraction of 1.5 percent in the third quarter. Reuters said it marked the first quarter of growth in three years.

In preliminary results for 2014/2015, the U.K.'s largest supermarket operator said full-year net profit was £138 million ($196.6 million) and said it had made "significant progress" on transforming the company by reducing its indebtedness and improving its cost-saving program, profitability and competitiveness.

Shares in the group nonetheless fell in early deals, down 3.5 percent, after CEO David Lewis said making the 2016-2017 analyst consensus of a profit forecast of £1.25 billion would be a big achievement.

Full-year operating profit before one-off items was £944 million, just ahead of analysts' expectations of £932 million, according to a Reuters poll. The results mark an improvement on last year when the retailer reported a full-year pre-tax loss of £6.38 billion ($9.5 billion) due to what it called "tough trading conditions."

"We have regained competitiveness in the U.K. with significantly better service, a simpler range, record levels of availability and lower and more stable prices.Our balance sheet is stronger and we are making good progress in rebuilding trust in Tesco and our investment case," Lewis said said in a statement.

The retailer continues to face competition from its main rivals Asda, Sainsbury's and Morrisons and discounters Aldi and Lidl.

In January, Tesco reported that sales fell over the Christmas period and announced that it would not be paying a final dividend to shareholders this year. Then, like-for-like sales, excluding fuel, fell 2.9 percent in the 19 weeks to January 3, and dipped 0.3 percent for the six-week Christmas period.

The results come a day after Tesco announced a further divestment of its non-core U.K. assets on Tuesday. It agreed the sale of an 8.6 percent stake in southeast Asian online retailer Lazada to Alibaba Group for £90.6 million pounds ($129 million).

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