* Sales 8.9 bln euros vs 8.8 bln in consensus forecast
* Confirms financial targets
* CFO confident on Q3 sales growth, shares climb
* Stock down 30 pct in 2018 on debt concerns (Adds CFO comments from calls, shares, analyst)
By Dominique Vidalon
PARIS, July 17 (Reuters) - Retailer Casino, which is battling to ease investor concerns about its high debt levels, posted stronger-than-expected second-quarter revenue, thanks to accelerating sales in France and Brazil, and predicted solid growth ahead.
Casino, whose shares rose, added it was confident of delivering on its plan to complete 1.5 billion euros ($1.8 billion) of asset sales by early 2019 to help cut debt. It also confirmed its financial goals.
The group, whose credit rating was cut to junk by Standard & Poor’s in March 2016, is under pressure to show it can revive profits in France, where it competes with bigger rivals such as Carrefour, while conditions in Brazil stay tough.
Casino, which controls Brazil’s top retailer Grupo Pao de Acucar, said second-quarter sales reached 8.916 billion euros, above the 8.8 billion euros average in a company-compiled consensus of analysts’ forecasts.
Stripping out acquisitions, currency effects and revenue on fuel, sales rose 5.2 percent against 3.1 percent growth seen in the first quarter.
Casino, along with domestic peers such as Carrefour and Auchan, faces intense price competition in its home market as well as challenges from online players such as Amazon which has made in-roads in the sector.
Finance chief Antoine Giscard d’Estaing said he was confident over Casino’s first-half results due on July 26.
He said Casino was benefiting from “strategic initiatives” taken in previous years in France, Brazil, and in the field of E-commerce, and expressed confidence Casino could grow its third quarter sales in line with the trend of the second quarter.
Casino shares were up 3 percent in early session trading, although the stock remains down roughly 30 percent since the start of 2018, partly on concerns over the debt position of parent group Rallye.
“We reiterate our ‘market perform’ on Casino after the company reported solid Q2 sales and confirmed full year guidance. The focus will remain on deleveraging,” wrote brokerage Raymond James.
Same-store sales at the Geant Casino hypermarkets in France rose 2.8 percent, an acceleration from 2.1 percent growth in the first quarter, as organic food products proved popular.
Its Monoprix, Franprix and Casino-branded stores also posted robust performances, notably in the lucrative Paris market.
Sales also rose in Brazil, helped by a strong performance of the Assai cash-and-carry outlets.
In order to cut costs, protect margins and cope with changes in shopping habits, particularly amid younger generations, retailers have been forming new buying alliances and sealing partnerships with tech giants.
Casino has a joint purchasing alliance with Auchan, German retailer Metro and France’s Schiever. It is also expanding its online offering through a deal to use UK online retailer Ocado’s platform. Monoprix has also become the first French retailer to agree to sell groceries via Amazon.
For 2018, Casino has forecast organic growth above 10 percent in consolidated profit, excluding tax credits, and for organic growth in French operating profit, excluding real estate activities, also above 10 percent.
In France, Casino has cut prices and retail space for non-food items at its Geant hypermarkets. It has also handed the management of its consumer electronics goods to its CDiscount unit and is rolling out CDiscount areas in Geant stores.
“This generates good traffic. It is a plus for the global traffic of the store,” Giscard d’Estaing told analysts.
$1 = 0.8538 euros Reporting by Dominique Vidalon; Editing by Sudip Kar-Gupta and Alexandra Hudson