Safeway had a very merry Christmas after reporting a significant growth in customer numbers and strong demand over the holiday period. In the first 12 weeks of the second half ending January 2000, total sales increased 7.8%, including like for like growth of 6.1%. Corporate affairs director Kevin Hawkins said the figures were boosted by the decision to run strong offers in individual stores as well as improved availability. But analysts have suggested the policy of giving store managers local pricing autonomy as played havoc with supplies and cut into the profit margins. Kate Calvert, retail analyst with HSBC said: "The trading statement is above our expectations but the sales growth is not profitable. Margins are down by a full 1% and the jury is still out as to whether its current strategy is working." The company's shares rose 7.5p on the trading figures to 218.5p however. It marks a period of recovery of the stocks after reports US investment fund company Brandes Investment Partners had taken a major stake in the company. {{NEWS }}