* Forecasts 5 pct sales growth this year
* CEO stands by 6-8 pct mid-term growth target
* Russell Stover acquisiton has not delivered -analyst (Adds CEO, analyst quotes, shares)
By Silke Koltrowitz
ZURICH, March 6 (Reuters) - Swiss chocolate maker Lindt & Spruengli expects sales growth of about 5 percent this year, below its mid-term target, as difficulties persist in its U.S. business.
Confectionery companies have been facing a tough time as consumers turn increasingly towards healthier snacks, but Lindt has fared better than some mass-market rivals thanks to its high-margin premium products and retail network.
Its U.S. business, however, is facing difficulties in a changing retail environment and repositioning of the Russell Stover business Lindt bought in 2014.
“The over $1 billion (acquisition) has not delivered for shareholders, in our view,” Baader Helvea analyst Andreas von Arx said in a note, also questioning the validity of Lindt’s mid-term growth target.
Chief Executive Dieter Weisskopf said he expected organic sales growth in North America and Mexico to accelerate to 4-5 percent this year from a small decline last year, helped by improved point-of-sale presentation and increased advertising.
Overall growth was pegged at about 5 percent for this year, against a mid-term target for 6-8 percent. He saw Russell Stover brand sales rising only next year, with improved profitability to follow.
Weisskopf said he stood by the longer-term growth target and was betting on markets such as China, Russia, Brazil, Japan and South Africa to drive growth.
“We expect double-digit growth in these markets,” he told reporters at Lindt’s headquarters in Kilchberg on Lake Zurich after the company reported full-year results.
The share of group sales in markets outside Europe and North America are expected to increase by about a percentage point (from 12.8 percent last year) each year, Weisskopf added.
Lindt, known for gold foil-wrapped Easter bunnies, also announced a share buyback programme of up to 500 million Swiss francs ($532.9 million).
Net profit rose 8 percent to 452.5 million Swiss francs last year. That prompted the company to propose a 6 percent dividend increase, vowing to maintain its payout policy.
It had already reported a 3.7 percent rise in 2017 organic sales in January, its lowest level since 2009.
Shares in Lindt were down 1 percent at 1115 GMT. ($1 = 0.9383 Swiss francs)
Editing by Amrutha Gayathri and David Goodman