French retail giant Casino has said its third-quarter sales were hit by weak consumer spending in France - a situation that has strengthened the company's commitment to expand its discount and convenience formats.

Casino's total nine-months net sales were €16.7bn (US$21.4bn), a rise of 0.2% from the year-ago period, or 2.0% at constant exchange rates.

Nine-month sales at the company's French operations were up 1.3% to €13.5bn. Sales were flat in the third quarter. Nine-month sales at its international operations declined 4.2% to €3.3bn, although at constant exchange rates sales rose 4.7%.

French sales were hit by a significant deterioration in consumer spending, a sharp drop in fruit and vegetable prices, and lower sales volumes of liquids and frozen products, which were boosted by the heatwave in the summer of 2003.

In view of extremely weak consumer spending in France in the third quarter, the group said it has set a target for 2004 of around 5% growth in operating income and around 10% growth in income from current operations after tax.

"The current environment in France has strengthened the group's commitment to pursue its strategy of aggressive expansion in discount and convenience formats and to continue to enhance its price positioning across its banners and product assortments (national brands, own brand and low price products)," Casino said.