By  on January 15, 2009

PARIS — France’s Carrefour on Thursday said slowing business in Europe reined in sales in the fourth quarter, underscoring the difficult environment facing European players as consumer spending shrinks in the face of the ongoing financial crisis.

The retailer, the world’s second largest after Wal-Mart Stores Inc., reported sales in the three months through Dec. 31 advanced 0.7 percent to 25.74 billion euros, or $33.72 billion. Like-for-like sales in the quarter lost 1.3 percent.

For the year, sales grew 5.7 percent to 97.56 billion euros, or $143.41 billion, said Carrefour, whose largest shareholder is a consortium controlled by LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton chief Bernard Arnault and Colony Capital. Dollar figures are converted from euros at average exchange rates for the period.

Growth markets in Latin America and Asia buoyed the retailer, but started to show signs of deterioration. In the quarter, sales in Asia grew 17.8 percent, while sales in Latin America gained 8.5 percent.

Meanwhile, business was tougher at home. Sales in Carrefour’s important French market lost 2.3 percent. The rest of Europe dropped 0.9 percent. The slowdown was particularly marked in Spain, where the environment is “rapidly deteriorating,” said Carrefour.

The numbers pointed to tough conditions ahead for European retailers.

Britain’s Marks and Spencer Group plc earlier this month said it would cut 1,200 jobs and close 27 stores to reduce costs amid falling sales. Last year, iconic British retailer Woolworths was forced to liquidate.

“The fourth quarter was especially challenging,” Eric Reiss, Carrefour financial director, said on a conference call. “This is the toughest environment in recent memory. The final weeks of December confirmed that we are operating in a difficult environment.”

Reiss said the drop in Champagne sales in December and a gain in less expensive sparkling white wine exemplified the dour mood. “Christmas was less merry,” he said.

Carrefour’s growth markets showed signs of slowdown. Sales in China declined 3.3 percent on a like-for-like basis in the quarter, reflecting weaker consumer spending trends and a marked slowdown in food price inflation. Sales in Taiwan lost 11.8 percent on a like-for-like basis, due to the economic crisis in that country.�

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