Despite a fall in volumes, the soft drink bottler Coca-Cola Bottling Co has announced earnings of US$13.8m for the third quarter of 2003, compared to net income of US$9.5m for the same period in 2002.

For the first nine months of 2003, net income was US$27.2m compared to US$23.7m last year.

However, income from operations in the third quarter of 2003 was down 6.8%, which primarily reflected higher operating expenses, driven by higher wage rates and a significant increase in pension costs, health care benefits and fuel prices. The reduction in income from operations was offset by declines in interest expense and minority interest expense

Net sales increased 1.8% in the third quarter of 2003, thanks to growth in average revenue per case and contract sales, which more than offset a 3.8% decline in bottle/can volume, the company said.

It blamed the decline in volumes on unseasonably cool and abnormally wet weather across the company's territories in July and August as well as less aggressive retail pricing by several of the company's customers.

For the third quarter of 2003, average revenue per case increased by 1.9%.

J. Frank Harrison, III, chairman and CEO, said, "While I am disappointed in the Company's operating income performance through September, the pricing increases we have been able to implement in the third quarter are encouraging."

Harrison said: "I am also encouraged by the company's expense control through the first nine months. Despite higher wage rates, a significant increase in pension and medical benefit costs, and higher fuel prices, the Company's other operating expenses have only increased modestly."

William B. Elmore, president and COO, said: "The volume decline in the third quarter reflects unseasonably cool and wet weather in July and August and exceptionally strong prior year volume. Volume in the third quarter of 2002 was up 8% sparked by the very successful launch of Vanilla Coke."

Elmore continued: "While overall volume declined in the third quarter, our diet portfolio was very strong, growing nearly 8% fuelled by diet Vanilla Coke and diet Cherry Coke."