Publix Super Markets Inc., which owns stores in Florida and four other states in the Southeast, said first-quarter sales rose 1.6%, helped by promotions and discounts.

Publix's profits inch up in first quarter

Sales totaled $6.5 billion, up from $6.4 billion during the first quarter of 2009, Lakeland, Fla.-based Publix reported in a May 3 statement.

“Comparable” store sales, or sales at stores open at least a year, increased 0.9%, according to a news release.

Supermarkets are slowly recovering from the recession and food deflation that squeezed profits during the past year.

Still, U.S. retail food sales are expected to grow little, if at all, in 2010, and traditional grocers face stiff price competition from discounters such as Bentonville, Ark.-based Wal-Mart Stores Inc.

Based on first-quarter results, smaller, regional supermarkets appear to be faring better than some larger national grocery chains.

Pleasanton, Calif.-based Safeway Inc., which operates 1,775 stores in the U.S. and Canada, on April 29 reported comparable store sales during the first quarter fell 3.1%, excluding fuel.

Publix boosted sales in part by “highlighting the value for our customers,” company spokeswoman Maria Brous said.

Recent Publix efforts include buy-one, get-one-free promotions on 20-25 items each week and offering recipes for feeding a family of four for under $15.

Net earnings for the first quarter rose to $364.4 million, up 13% from $321.5 million during the same period in 2009, Publix said in the May 3 statement.

Publix operates 1,016 stores, including 729 in Florida and 177 in Georgia, according to the company’s Web site. The company has another 110 stores in Alabama, South Carolina and Tennessee.