Supermarket retailer Ahold Delhaize's fourth-quarter sales meet expectations

Online presence is key to our proposition: Ahold Delhaize
Online presence is key to our proposition: Ahold Delhaize

Ahold Delhaize, the Dutch-Belgian supermarket operator, reported fourth-quarter sales in line with expectations on Wednesday, driven by strong online business in the Netherlands.

Sales increased 3 percent to 16.5 billion euros ($18.76 billion) in the three months through Dec. 31, 2018, compared with an average estimate of 16.4 billion euros in a poll of analysts by the company.

Ahold said in a trading update that it expected underlying earnings per share from continuing operations to be at the higher end of its guidance of 1.50-1.60 euros.

The company increased its guidance marginally for free cash flow in 2018 to more than 2 billion euros from an estimate of even 2 billion euros in November.

In the United States, where Ahold is the largest online supermarket retailer and owns Stop & Shop and Food Lion, sales rose 2.7 percent. Online sales grew 12.1 percent at constant exchange rates, it said.

Ahold said in November it was seeking to bolster its U.S. operations through acquisitions, to help it take on competitors such as Kroger, Walmart and Amazon in the race to win online customers.

In the Netherlands, Ahold's sales rose 3.3 percent, despite losing market share at its flagship Albert Heijn stores. Its online store increased sales by 32.3 percent in the quarter and 2.1 billion euros for the full year 2018.