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By James Davey
LONDON (Reuters) - British sales of tablet computers are booming, Europe's second-biggest electricals retailer Dixons said, underpinning profit growth and offsetting weak markets in debt-squeezed southern Europe.
The firm, which trails Metro's Media-Saturn by annual sales, achieved triple-digit growth in tablet sales over the year in the UK and Chief Executive Sebastian James forecast "another big tablet Christmas."
"Less than a third of UK households now have a tablet and we also think these are personal devices so there's lots of road left in this particular product," James told reporters on Thursday.
"And there's going to be some further product innovation as these tablets get thinner and lighter and more powerful," he said after Dixons beat guidance with a 15 percent rise in underlying profit for the year to April 30.
The most popular lines are the Apple iPad, the Samsung Galaxy and the Google Nexus.
Across Europe many store groups are struggling as government efforts to bring down national debt crush consumers' disposable incomes. Electrical retailers have been particularly exposed because they sell discretionary goods under cut-price competition from supermarkets and internet retailers such as Amazon. On Wednesday No. 3 player Darty reported a 66 percent fall in annual profit.
But in Britain, Dixons, which trades as Currys and PC World, has benefited from the demise of rival Comet and the partial exit of Jessops and HMV. It has also been cutting costs, revamping stores and seeking to improve products, prices and service.
While James cautioned against extrapolating fourth quarter UK like-for-like sales growth of 13 percent into the 2013-14 year, he said the firm had "got some momentum."
Separately on Thursday official data showed British retail sales rebounded much more than expected in May.
Shares in Dixons, which have more than trebled in the past year, were up 2 percent at 43.1 pence at 0926 GMT, valuing the business at 1.57 billion pounds ($2.5 billion).
"The shares continue to have upside as the P&L benefits from both the demise of Comet and loss elimination," said Panmure Gordon analyst Philip Dorgan.
The firm, also home to Elkjop in Nordic countries, UniEuro in Italy and Kotsovolos in Greece, made an underlying pretax profit of 94.5 million pounds, ahead of company guidance of 93 million pounds and 82.1 million pounds made in the 2011-12 year.
In the UK, Ireland and northern Europe profits rose 39 percent and 6 percent respectively, while in the southern Europe division where losses narrowed the firm was "hunkering down while the storm passes."
Underlying group sales increased 4 percent to 8.2 billion pounds, though gross margin fell 0.7 percentage points, reflecting a higher proportion of sales with lower margins.
Dixons did, however, book restructuring and impairment charges of 168.8 million pounds, relating mainly to its struggling PIXmania internet operation and the disposal of its Equanet business.
Taking these into account the firm slightly narrowed its pretax loss to 115.3 million pounds. Dixons has said it wants to sell or close PIXmania.
The group ended the year with net cash of 42.1 million pounds versus net debt of 104 million at the start of the year, an outcome James said was "an important psychological milestone in our transition from survivor to winner."
But Finance Director Humphrey Singer said it was too soon to talk about resuming dividend payments. "We need to focus on sorting out some of the strategic challenges we have first and once we've got clarity on that then we'll turn to the question of the balance sheet, which includes not just dividends but repaying outstanding bonds," he said. ($1 = 0.6386 British pounds)
(Reporting by James Davey; Editing by Kate Holton/Ruth Pitchford)