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Earnings Preview: Kroger to report 4Q results

NEW YORK (AP) -- Kroger Co. reports its fourth-quarter results Thursday, which should give a snapshot of how the nation's largest traditional supermarket chain is faring in its effort to fend off growing competition.

WHAT TO WATCH FOR: The Cincinnati-based company, which also operates the Fry's, Food 4 Less and Ralphs chains, has been working to improve the shopping experience amid intensifying competition from big-box retailers such as Target, natural grocery chains like Whole Foods and dollar stores.

In the previous quarter, the company said sales at locations open at least a year rose 3.2 percent. The metric is a key gauge of health because it strips out the impact of newly opened and closed locations.

WHY IT MATTERS: People have a growing number of options for buying their groceries. Wal-Mart and Target have been expanding their grocery sections and even dollar stores are changing their formats and merchandise offerings to appear more like grocery stores. As a result, Kroger has found itself experimenting with new formats as well.

Its larger "Marketplace" stores, for example, have a bigger footprint and sell general merchandise in addition to groceries. It has also opened about a dozen smaller "Ruler" stores that focus primarily on cheaper, private-label products. CEO Dave Dillon has noted that Kroger has kept pace with changing habits by constantly evolving its store formats.

Meanwhile, grocery rival Supervalu is selling off five of its grocery chains, including Albertson's and Jewel-Osco, after years of being squeezed by competitive pressures.

LAST YEAR'S QUARTER: Kroger lost $306.9 million, or 54 cents per share. Not including one-time charges, the company earned 50 cents per share. Revenue was $21.4 billion.

WHAT'S EXPECTED: Analysts expect a profit of 70 cents per share on revenue of $24.03 billion.