US food retailer and distributor Nash Finch has reported higher first-quarter earnings, but said its retail operations were hit by increased competition.

The company posted earnings of US$4.7m, or 38 cents per share, for the first quarter to 27 March, compared to $3.3m, or 27 cents per share, in the year-ago quarter. Total sales for the quarter rose to $879.5m versus $856.7m in the prior-year period.

Food distribution sales improved 11% to $431.1m, while operating profits of the foods distribution unit increased to $14.5m from $11.2m a year earlier. Food distribution performance was driven primarily by sales from new account gains, Nash Finch said.

Corporate retail sales were $194.7m in the first quarter compared with $221.5m in the prior-year period. Same-store sales decreased 10.9%.

“The difficult competitive environment, in which an ever-increasing number of supercenters and other alternative formats compete for price-conscious consumers, continues to adversely affect same-store sales,” the company said.

Retail segment operating profits were $2.8m for the first quarter of 2004 compared to $7.2m in the prior-year period, partially due to the impact of negative same-store sales and partially due to losses incurred by the Avanza stores opened last year. The company’s total store count at the end of the first quarter was 106 compared to 111 at the end of the first quarter last year.

Nash Finch said that as a whole, quarterly results were in line with its expectations. The company backed its forecast of between $2.46 and $2.54 earnings per share for fiscal 2004.