Ocado, the online grocer which plans to float in 2010, has held talks with the world's second-biggest retailer Carrefour about a partnership to deliver shopping to customers' homes in France.
Executives from Carrefour recently visited Ocado's highly automated distribution centre in Hadfield, Hertfordshire.
Discussions have centred on a potential joint venture which would see Carrefour – the French retail giant that competes with Tesco and Wal-Mart in a number of overseas territories – use Ocado's sophisticated software for online grocery deliveries, beginning in Paris. One source said that Ocado's staff had "been sworn to secrecy" about a partnership with Carrefour.
The revelation comes as Ocado, which delivers Waitrose groceries and was founded by three former Goldman Sachs bankers in 2002, prepares to float on the stock market next year.
One of its founders, Jason Gissing, has said that Ocado would consider a tie-up with foreign retailers and has been approached by overseas operators. Both Ocado and Carrefour declined to comment yesterday. One City analyst, who asked to remain anonymous, said that Carrefour's existing online grocery operation in France had struggled. He estimated that it delivered annual sales of only €200m, although Carrefour, which operates in 35 countries, does not separate its online grocery figures.
Ocado, which has yet to make a pre-tax profit, is growing rapidly and enjoyes annual sales of about £450m. Tim Steiner, the chief executive, and Andrew Bracey, its new finance director, have been touring investment banks in recent weeks ahead of a potential initial public stock offering next year.
In 2008, Carrefour sales totalled €97.6bn (£89.7bn), comfortably ahead of the £59.4bn achieved by the world's third-largest retailer Tesco. But Tesco's market capitalisation of £33.6bn and pre-tax profits of £3bn are now substantially bigger than Carrefour's. Both retailers' sales are dwarfed by those of Asda's owner, Wal-Mart.