Whole Foods Market (WFM), the leading natural and organic foods retailer, has recorded a 27% rise in third-quarter earnings per share to US$0.37, on sales up 18% at $1.3bn.

The Texas-based group said net income increased by 33% to $53.9m for the quarter, which included approximately $1.4m in non-cash share-based compensation expense and approximately $3.7m in pre-tax credits for insurance proceeds and other adjustments related to Hurricane Katrina.

For the 40-week period to 2 July, 2006, sales were up by 20% at $4.3bn, on the back of a 14% weighted average square footage growth and comparable store sales growth of 11.7%. Sales in identical stores increased by 10.9%, while net income rose by 29% to $164.0m. Diluted EPS for the year to date rose by 21% to $1.13.

"We are very pleased to report 9.9% comparable store sales growth for the quarter given our tough 15.2% comparison in the prior year. This translates to a 25.1% two-year comp in the third quarter, the highest we have produced this year," said John Mackey, the company's chairman, chief executive officer and co- founder. "We continue to expect comparable store sales growth for the full year of 10% to 12% which will mark our third year of double-digit comparable sales growth."

In the third quarter, the company opened one new store in Greenville, South Carolina, and closed a Fresh & Wild store in the UK. In the fourth quarter, WFM plans to open four stores, averaging 58,000 square feet in size, one of which is a relocation.

WFM said it is expecting sales growth of 15% to 20% for the 2007 fiscal year on a 52-week to 52-week basis, and forecasts that operating income before pre-opening and relocation costs will be in line with sales growth. WFM's long-term aim is to reach $12bn in sales by 2010.