* FY 2012 op profit forecast to rise 7.9 pct to 312 bln yen
* Q4 op profit up 12 pct to 75.8 bln yen, caps record year
* Shares up more than 15 pct year to date, beat benchmark
TOKYO, April 5 (Reuters) - Japan’s top general retailer Seven & I Holdings projected on Thursday a 7.9 percent rise in annual operating profit for this business year as shoppers rediscover its convenience stores.
Japanese flocked to convenience stores after last year’s massive earthquake and tsunami seeking daily supplies and kept coming back to grab new product offerings like cooking oil, fresh vegetables and rolled sponge cake.
The new selection of products allowed general retailers like Seven & I, Lawson Inc and FamilyMart Co, to appeal to a wider range of customers than the young men who typically frequent convenience stores.
In addition, Japan’s economy is expected to grow 1.9 percent in the fiscal year that began in April with exports seen picking up by the middle of this year, helped by signs that the U.S. economy is regaining strength, a Reuters poll has shown.
The owner of 7-Eleven, the world’s largest convenience store chain, forecast 315 billion yen ($3.82 billion) in operating profit for the year that began in March, slightly higher than the average projection of 308.4 billion yen in a poll of 17 analysts by Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.
For the year to February, Seven & I booked a 20 percent rise in operating profit to 292.06 billion yen, the highest level since its establishment as a holding company in 2005. It set its previous record of 286.8 billion yen in 2006.
Operating profit in the December-February quarter came to 75.84 billion yen, a 12 percent year-on-year rise.
Many Japanese retailers are poised to earn record profits in the business year that just ended following higher demand for food and consumer goods, particularly higher-margin prepared meals and private-label products.
Seven & I is among the first of Japan’s bluechip companies to give annual forecasts. Rivals such as top supermarket operator Aeon Co and major convenience store chains Lawson and FamilyMart are scheduled to issue results next week.
Seven & I shares have risen more than 17 percent over the past year, outperforming a close to 1 percent gain in the benchmark Nikkei average.
Before the earnings announcement, shares of Seven & I ended 0.3 percent lower, against the Nikkei’s 0.5 percent fall. (Reporting by James Topham; Editing by Matt Driskill)