Elaine Watson "Severe disruption" at Safeway stores being converted to the new hypermarket format will drag into early summer as bosses continue to tinker with the concept, the company has admitted. Safeway blamed a lacklustre set of fourth quarter trading figures on the upheaval at stores undergoing the conversion process, but said its performance had been "satisfactory­ given the scale of change in stores undergoing reformatting". Like-for-like sales in the 12 weeks to March 30 rose 3.5% after stripping out Easter trading, just below Sainsbury's 4.2% for the same period. Including Easter, they rose 4.1%. For the year to March 30, like-for-like sales were up 4.9% compared to 5.2% for the previous year. Safeway director of communications Kevin Hawkins said the figures had been depressed by disruption at stores in Glasgow, Nottingham, Northampton and Milton Keynes which are being converted to Megastores. The four new hypermarkets ­ which account for about 2% of Safeway's selling space - were scheduled to open in mid March, making a strong two to three week contribution to the last quarter. However, opening dates have now been put back to May or June after management decided to make last minute changes to the format after analysing data from the first hypermarket in Plymouth. "Plymstock is trading extremely well," said Hawkins. "But it didn't open until December and it wasn't until late January and February that we could learn the operational lessons to inform the new stores. So we took it on the chin in quarter four." Analysts said the figures were at the low end of expectations, while the delay in the larger store openings made it difficult to assess the company's longer term prospects. Merrill Lynch analyst Andrew Fowler said: "Safeway's sales growth is slowing and it's not a great reflection on the enormous amount they are spending on their stores. Growth at Safeway and Sainsbury's is disappointing when you consider the figures Tesco and Morrisons are putting in." However, Teather & Greenwood analyst Dave Stoddart said growth at competitors was driven by non food and store extensions, which are included in like for like figures, disguising the fact that Safeway's "grocery-focused recovery is more successful than widely appreciated". {{NEWS }}