Anders Moberg, Ahold's CEO, described 2003 as "a lost year", inevitably affected by the accounting fraud scandal which wiped €1 billion off Ahold's books in 2002. The year was one of disposals in Latin America, the US, Asia and Europe - although the full impact of these sales will be seen only in the current financial year - and of a number of financial and structural measures designed to get the group back on track.
Total group turnover was down by 10.6 per cent at €56.1 billion, but this was almost entirely due to the weakness of the US dollar. Most of the group's continuing businesses increased their sales in local currencies, resulting in a 2.7 per cent increase on a constant currency basis.
The notable exception was the company's home market, the Netherlands, where the price war with rival Laurus meant that sales from the Albert Heijn unit were 2.7 per cent lower than the previous year.
But with a large part of the sales growth coming from a substantial improvement (17.8 per cent) in the performance of the company's Latin American businesses - and the first full-year consolidation of the Disco unit in Argentina - turnover in 2004 is likely to be considerably lower. All of the company's operations there are likely to have been sold by the end of the current year.
The effects of the fraud at US Foodservice were felt mainly on operating profits, with results from that unit dropping €72 million into the red almost entirely as a result of the loss of leverage with its suppliers and the legal costs related to the fraud investigations.
But overall operating profits were some 200 per cent higher than in 2002 at €718 million as a result of a sharp fall in exceptional charges.
The Road to Recovery programme - which includes not only disposals but also a rights issue and widespread streamlining of operations - helped the group wipe €4.8 billion off its debt burden in 2003, in turn helping reduce net losses from €2.1 billion to a decidedly more manageable €1 million.
A better-than-expected performance, then, from the Dutch retail group, but it is the 2004 results which will give a clearer picture of the state of Ahold's recovery. Only the sale of the businesses in Chile and Malaysia had a major impact on the 2003 figures, and with a number of other disposals now completed - or near completion - sales figures will be substantially reduced in the current year.
With little sign of an upturn in the US economy, the company will also continue to suffer at the hands of the weak dollar in 2004, a factor likely to be further compounded by the disposal of a number of businesses there and the ongoing weakness at US Foodservice, a unit which is becoming something of an albatross for the Dutch group.
Nor is Europe likely to be any better, with the continued price war in the Netherlands, the sale of its Spanish business and ongoing currency fluctuations.
Ahold's management, under pressure to get results from investors and shareholders alike, stressed that there would be further difficulties before the real benefits of restructuring were seen, and that 2004 would necessarily be a year of transition.
The ongoing retail businesses in the US, Europe and Asia are likely to come under further pressure in 2004, especially with regard to prices, and while some improvement is expected in the foodservice operations, this will be tempered by the impact of higher fuel and commodity costs.
What 2004 will not see, however, is a 'fire sale' of assets, with Ahold continuing its planned programme of divestments, including its remaining operations in South America and Spain, as well as BI-LO/Bruno's and the remaining convenience stores at Tops in the United States. However, net results will be impacted by exceptional items relating to some of these sales, while operating profits will also be hit by ongoing legal costs.