Decline in European Sales Hits Unilever

LONDON -- Unilever  (LSE: ULVR  ) (NYSE: UL  )  disappointed shareholders with its first-quarter results, sending the shares down more than 2% in early trade this morning as it became the latest FTSE 100 member to reveal lower-than-anticipated underlying sales growth in Europe, falling by 3.1%. 

Total underlying sales growth across the consumer goods company rose 4.9%, with underlying volume growth up 2.2%, pricing increasing by 2.6%, and turnover coming in at 12.2 billion euros, a 0.2% lift on the same period last year.

But it's the developed markets that investors would have been keeping a close eye on, and management stated that Europe's Q1 performance "reflected continued difficult markets and the strong prior year comparator" and that "Southern Europe remains particularly difficult and consumer confidence in northern Europe continues to be eroded by fiscal tightening and the continuing impact of the financial crisis".

Emerging markets did see an increase in sales of 10.4%, though, despite the continuing macroeconomic headwinds, while Latin America delivered double-digit growth at 12.3%, driven by strong performances in Brazil and Argentina, and Australia returned to growth despite tough markets. 

The quarter also saw Unilever dispose of its Skippy peanut butter brand in North America, which contributed to reducing turnover by (1.1)% alongside the disposal of its U.S. frozen food business. As a region, North America increased growth by 0.3%, remaining stable, with "major innovations" such as Magnum, Clear, and Simple continuing to make good progress.

CEO Paul Polman commented:

We maintained good growth momentum in the first quarter despite challenging economies and the tough competitive environment. This performance is further evidence that Unilever is becoming fit to win and capable of delivering consistent growth ahead of our markets. Our strategy is working.

The Unilever Sustainable Living Plan is becoming embedded across the business and increasingly driving our day-to-day decisions and actions, helping to drive increased sales while reducing costs and risks. Brands like Lifebuoy, Dove, Domestos, Knorr and Signal that have made sustainability central to their brand proposition continue to perform well. At the same time we have focused on eco-efficiencies in our factories. By reducing our usage of energy, water and materials, and by driving down waste, we release funds to invest in our brands and further drive growth.

We remain focused on achieving another year of profitable volume growth ahead of our markets, steady and sustainable core operating margin improvement and strong cash flow.

Management were keen to state that, stripping out the "sluggish" performance of developed markets momentarily, it was another quarter of good growth, with emerging markets delivering an eight successive quarter of double-digit growth and had "a good balance between volume and price."

Unilever also stated that it would be lifting its quarterly dividend by 10.7% to 0.2690 euros per share, which puts the company on a consensus yield of a little more than 3%. If it can return Europe to growth in the near future, then the shares at their current price might just represent a decent buying opportunity.

On these figures, our top analysts have highlighted Unilever as one of our "5 Shares You Can Retire On" -- an exclusive wealth report that reviews five particularly attractive possibilities in the FTSE 100.

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