Despite the difficult consumer environment, Sainbury’s this morning unveiled a 3.5% sales increase in its fourth quarter.

The supermarket retailer said it had benefited from delivering a “universal customer appeal” and revealed its like-for-like sales (LFLs) had increased by 4.3% during the same period, or 1% excluding fuel. LFLs for the full year were up by 4.7% or by 2.3% excluding fuel.

Pre-tax profit for the year to 17 March fell to £799m, down from the £827m the company made a year earlier, due in part to increased pension costs and lower profits on property sales.

However, underlying profit rose by 7% to £712m, slightly higher than analysts had expected.

The company said market share had hit 16.6%, its highest in almost a decade.

Justin King, chief executive, said: “In a tough consumer environment our focus on delivering universal customer appeal and our multi-channel and space growth strategy has attracted a record 21 million customers to our stores each week, up 1 million on last year. As a result we have delivered total sales growth excluding fuel of 3.5% and like-for-like sales growth of 1%, outperforming the market in the period.

“Total sales growth including fuel was 6.8%, reflecting volume growth in fuel as customers respond to our competitive prices. This is despite fuel price inflation of 16% year-on-year, which is having a significant impact on most household budgets.”

In a statement, the company added: “We continued to progress our space growth strategy, opening 193,000sq ft of new space in the quarter, comprising three new supermarkets (including two replacement stores), one extension and 21 convenience stores. This brings gross space growth for the year to 8.5% and 15.9% in the two years to March 2011, exceeding our 15% target set in 2009.

“We expect the consumer environment to remain tough, with our customers facing fuel price inflation, uncertain employment prospects and government spending cuts. We have demonstrated our ability to perform well in these conditions and are confident that our growth plans and universal customer appeal, supported by Nectar and coupons at till, mean we are well-positioned for further growth in 2011/12.”