Booker has reported a 5.5% increase in half-year retail sales, reversing the 0.5% drop recorded a year ago.

Group sales rose 7.7% to £1.6bn in the 24 weeks to 11 September, helped by like-for-like growth of 9.4% in non-tobacco sales and 5.1% in tobacco sales. Pre-tax profits rose 12.1% to £29.7m.

Retail sales had been boosted by Booker's focus on price, the extension of depot opening hours, the rollout of the cash & carry's Extra format to a further 10 depots, and improved availability, said sales director for retail Steve Fox.

"While the market remains challenging we are making positive progress with more independent retailers shopping at Booker. We have kept up our record of helping independents increase sales and profits."

Fox said 185 retailers joined up to Booker's symbol fascia Premier in the period, including 85 to its new Premier Express fascia, taking the total number of Premier stores to 2,392.

Booker also claimed it was the UK's fastest-growing catering supplier, having increased sales by more than £100m in the past year, with sales to caterers up 12.6% against an overall foodservice decline of 5%.

The double-digit increase also compared favourably against Booker's growth of 4.7% last year and was a result of more licensees and caterers shopping at Booker, said sales director for catering Ron Hickey. "By increasing choice, lowering prices and improving service, I am confident we can keep doing a better job for our independent licensees and caterers," he said, adding that the wholesaler had recently extended its catering ranges Lichfield Luxury and Chef's Larder.

Booker's internet sales were also continuing to outpace the market, up 88% to £180.8m in the half-year.

The figures, which were slightly ahead of expectation, didn't prevent shares falling 4.4% to 43.5p. But Investec analyst Nicola Mallard said: "In a wholesale market that only showed low single-digit growth in 2008, it is clear Booker is gaining share. It will be tougher in the second half, but this is reflected in our forecasts."