Morrisons CEO Marc Bolland today (4 December) defended the UK retailer's move to buy dozens of stores from fellow grocer The Co-operative Group.

The Co-op has agreed to sell 38 stores to Morrisons for GBP223.1m (US$328.6m) in a deal that raised eyebrows given the economic downturn.

However, Bolland, boss of the UK's fourth-largest grocer, said the time was right for Morrisons to further expand its store base in the country as it continues to enjoy rising sales.

Morrisons today posted an 8.1% rise in third-quarter like-for-like sales, excluding fuel, for the 13 weeks to 2 November.

"It is excellent timing for us," Bolland said. "There is a really growing interest in Morrisons around the country. We now have very strong momentum."

The acquisition of the Co-operative Food and former Somerfield stores comes as the Co-op looks to find buyers for at least 126 outlets to win competition approval for its GBP1.6bn purchase of Somerfield.

The transaction is dependent on the Co-op winning approval from the Office of Fair Trading, which had ordered the retailer to sell off 126 stores to address competition concerns.

Should it go through, the deal will add over 500,000 square feet to Morrisons' store network and the company said the outlets would "fit very well" with its existing 150 smaller stores.

Bolland was unable to comment on the location of the stores due to the pending nature of the deal but said the locations had a "nice geographic spread".

Morrisons said it expects the handover of the stores to start early next year and the conversion of the outlets to take six months to complete.

Bolland, meanwhile, said Morrisons had attracted customers from its rivals through its focus on value and fresh food.

"We have gained customers from all our major competitors," he said. "People are coming to us for value and people are coming to us for fresh."