Dutch retail giant Ahold today (21 January) reported slowing sales growth in the fourth quarter of 2009, although its shares rose in early trading as the figures beat analyst forecasts.

Ahold, which runs the Albert Heijn chain in the Netherlands and Stop & Shop in the US, booked a 3.4% increase in fourth-quarter net sales to EUR6.8bn (US$9.56bn) - compared to growth of 4.3% in the third quarter of the year.

Even allowing for the fact that Ahold's fourth quarter in 2008 had an extra trading week, net sales rose 2.1% on an adjusted basis.

Nevertheless, Ahold's shares were up 0.4% in early trading on the Euronext exchange this morning as the company's fourth-quarter sales beat a forecast of analysts polled by Reuters.

The company said "strong volume growth" in the fourth quarter had offset falling food prices and consumers continuing to trade down.

Across 2009, Ahold's net sales were up 8.9% at EUR27.9bn.

The retailer issues its full 2009 financial numbers on 4 March.