Supermarket group Waitrose is to increase its selling space by 20% after unveiling a deal today to buy 19 stores from Morrisons.

The Bradford-based chain is selling the outlets as part of the disposal programme required by regulators following its takeover of Safeway.

The acquisition, which takes Waitrose into new areas in the north of England and Wales, is the largest ever undertaken by the John Lewis Partnership, which operates the 144-strong supermarket chain.

All but one of the stores being sold are Safeway-branded, with the conversion process expected to be completed in time for the Christmas season.

Waitrose, which recently announced record sales and profits, will be looking to repeat the process that saw 11 Somerfield stores acquired and then converted into the Waitrose brand in the spring of 2000.

Managing director Steve Esom said: "Waitrose is already one of the fastest-growing food businesses in the country, but this acquisition represents a major step change in our expansion programme."

Morrisons was required to sell 52 stores by the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) as part of moves to ease competition concerns in certain parts of the country. Today's deal features the first 14 outlets in that agreement.

The group put the value of the assets being sold at £158 million, adding that the sale price was in line with its initial expectations.

Today's announcement is still subject to the approval of the OFT.

Thursday March 25, 2004