March 7 (Reuters) - Kroger Co, the biggest U.S. supermarket operator, on Thursday reported a quarterly profit that easily topped Wall Street's expectations after it lured customers from rivals.
The results from the Cincinnati-based grocer, which operates the Kroger, Ralphs, Smith's and Food 4 Less chains, sent shares up more than 3 percent in early trading.
Kroger posted fourth-quarter net earnings of $461.5 million, or 88 cents per share.
Excluding gains from inventory accounting and taxes, the company earned 77 cents per share, 7 cents better than Wall Street expected, Kroger said.
In the year-ago quarter, Kroger reported a loss of $306.9 million, or 54 cents per share, after it booked a large charge related to consolidating its pension plan.
Total sales, including fuel, rose 12.8 percent to $24.2 billion in the latest quarter, largely in-line with analysts' estimate.
Kroger said its market-share growth accelerated at year's end and customers were buying more items during each visit.
Excluding fuel, identical-supermarket sales were up 3 percent, more than the 0.8 percent gain recently reported by smaller rival Safeway Inc.
Identical-supermarket sales are a measure of a grocer's performance because they track stores that have remained open without expansion or relocation for five full quarters.
Kroger - whose rivals also include discounter Wal-Mart Stores Inc and Target Corp - set its 2013 earnings forecast at $2.71 to $2.79 per share.
Kroger's shares rose 3.4 percent to $30.36 in morning trading on the New York Stock Exchange.