It’s early days, but Sainsbury’s results out today show it is taking the first tentative steps on the road to recovery.

Sainsbury revealed that total UK supermarket sales were up 5.1% to £16.1bn for the year to end March 26, compared with last year’s £15.3bn.

Like-for like sales, excluding petrol, in Sainsbury’s supermarkets business slipped 0.4% for the year, but increased by 1.7% in the final quarter of 2004.

Underlying operating profit was also down to £321m from £564m the year before.

Total group sales recorded a 5.5% increase to £16,364m, while total underlying profit before tax slipped to £254m from £675m. After exceptional items relating to the turnaround of the business, Sainsbury was expected to report its first-ever annual loss this morning. Instead, it surprised pundits by announcing a pre-tax profit of £15m for the year, down from £610m in 2004.

The retailer also warned that it expected to incur a further £50m of exceptional charges in the coming year.

Sainsbury’s chairman Philip Hampton said the group was still at the very early stages of a long-term recovery progamme.

“While it is pleasing to be able to report that our sales performance improved towards the end of the year, these are early days and there is still much to be done to deliver our plans in a tough and competitive retail market.”

“We have been pleased with progress over the last six months and the early improvements we have seen, particularly in our fourth quarter trading,” he added.

The group has adopted a three-year sales-led recovery with plans to increase sales by £2.5bn by the end of 2007/08.