Sainsbury’s has recorded a 2.6% increase in like-for-like sales excluding fuel for the fourth quarter.

The grocer said total sales rose 5.1% excluding fuel for the 10 weeks to March 17.

Sainsbury’s said like-for-like sales for the year to March 17 rose 4.5% and it has achieved its 7.3% gross space growth.

Sainsbury’s chief executive Justin King said the retailer’s strategy of “delivering universal customer appeal” had paid off in a tough economic climate.

Sainsbury’s invested £85m in its fresh food offer this year as the category increasingly becomes the key battleground in competition between the big four grocers.

Sales of its own label Basics range grew by 10% and Taste the Difference grew by almost 20% in the quarter.

The retailer said its convenience business, Sainsbury’s Local, is growing at a rate of over 20% driven by a combination of new space and strong like-for-like sales growth.

Sainsbury’s said it is the fastest growing online grocer with sales growth over 20% and that its non-food business is growing “ahead of the market”.

King said: “Our unique own label ranges enable customers to save money when they need to and to treat themselves, their friends and families on special occasions. Through Brand Match, customers are increasingly aware of the great value Sainsbury’s offers.

“Our Nectar loyalty programme is a key source of customer insight, and we have signed a new long-term contract ensuring we retain this competitive advantage. We continue to outperform the market and gain market share.”

He added: “Convenience, online and non-food are all growing ahead of the market, as our multi-channel offer means customers can do more of their shopping with Sainsbury’s. Against difficult market conditions we are gaining market share in clothing and general merchandise.”

In the quarter Sainsbury’s added 170,000 sq ft of gross new space, including two new supermarkets, three extensions, and 15 new convenience stores.

This brings our total gross new space in the year to 1.4 million square feet, opening 19 new stores at an average size of just over 39,000 sq ft, extending 28 stores by an average of 15,000 square feet, and opening 73 new convenience stores.

Veteran retail analyst Nick Bubb said Sainsbury’s trading had been “undeniably strong” and that it “is still hitting the right notes with its marketing and advertising and are entitled to be confident of standing up to whatever Tesco etc will throw at them.”

Retail Remedy director Philip Dorrell said:”Sainsbury’s should be looking over its shoulder because Tesco is like a wounded animal baying for blood. Asda has stolen a march on Sainsbury’s Brand Match by battling harder on price and has also launched a programme focusing on the quality of its food.

“It has caught more of the floating shoppers Tesco has haemorrhaged than Sainsbury’s. The combination of a wounded Tesco and a perhaps savvier Asda could mean 2012 is a tougher year for Sainsbury’s than 2011.

“Sainsbury’s is the gentleman of retail, but maybe it should roll up its sleeves from time to time if it wants to make even more of an impact.”