Supermarket Tops has reported its first quarterly profit since it began operating in Thailand eight years ago, and says the outlook for the entire year is bright even though consumers are tightening their belts, according to a Bangkok Post report quoted by the Thai News Service.

The first-quarter operation of Tops, purchased last year by Central Retail Corporation from Ahold NV of the Netherlands, showed a profit of 2% of total sales. The company did not reveal the actual figures, including sales volume or growth.

Ian Pye, president of Central Food Retail Co, the operator of Tops Supermarket, said that performance during the first quarter was impressive; a 32% expansion in sales, up from just 2%-3% growth in the first quarter of 2004.

"It is the first time we achieved both sales and profit targets," Pye said.

The figures for the quarter included 6% same-store growth, 45% growth from new outlets, and 55% growth from the 21 Tops outlets that had been transformed from Food Lion.

In addition to buying out Ahold's interest in Tops, Central Food Retail last year purchased the local business of Belgian-based supermarket chain Food Lion.

The market share of Tops in the food retail market during the first quarter (including supermarkets and discount stores) increased by 8.5% compared to 7% of last year.

The company plans to open 13 more new outlets by the end of this year, to reach 90 stores in all. Two new outlets will be opened in the Yaowarat and St Louis areas of Bangkok by the end of next month.

Asked about the decline in consumer purchasing power because of higher oil prices,  Pye said consumers would shop less often, but would increase their spending per bill.

"Under this economic uncertainty, consumers will also cut their entertainment budgets. However, they will stay and cook at home with family or friends. So, quality food ingredients and food items are still required," he said.

To cater to this trend, Central Food Retail has signed an agreement with UK supermarket Waitrose to distribute Waitrose products at 25 strategic Tops markets, including Chidlom, Thong Lo and Silom in Bangkok, as well as stores in Phuket and Hat Yai in the South.

About 250 Waitrose products including biscuits, teas, pasta and organic flour are available this month. The company expects Waitrose brand sales will reach 100m baht (US$2.46m).

The company plans to add other imported brands in an attempt to market Tops as a truly international store.