Investors are eager for an operating update from Procter & Gamble (PG 0.62%), especially as COVID-19 has scrambled shopping trends around the world. Sure, the company's consumer-staples focus means revenue growth has likely held up or even accelerated, as the pandemic has forced more at-home time and supply restocking. The company also just announced a major boost to its dividend.

But P&G should reveal other important details about its business, so let's look at the metrics investors will be watching in its earnings report on Friday, April 17.

A man shopping in a warehouse store

Image source: Getty Images.

Sales growth is up

Procter & Gamble's fiscal third quarter ended on March 31. The period included peak social-distancing mandates in China tied to the spread of COVID-19, and the beginning of those efforts in both Europe and the United States. The full impact of the resulting shifts in shopping behavior is unpredictable. Soaring demand for essentials like paper towels and cleaning supplies in some areas might be offset by reduced access to retailers, or by out-of-stock situations.

Still, there are good reasons to expect robust sales growth this quarter and beyond. P&G raised its annual outlook in each of its last two quarterly earnings reports, thanks to increased volumes and higher prices. Rival Kimberly-Clark, in contrast, has had to lean exclusively on price increases to keep sales marching higher. P&G's faster growth has translated into strengthening market-share trends for more than a year.

On the downside, CEO David Taylor and his team said back in January that sales gains would likely slow from their recent 5% pace for the second half of the fiscal year, due to greater competition and a comparison with booming prior-year growth. We'll find out if P&G managed to outperform that conservative forecast on Friday.

Financial wins

P&G likely had to face some unusual cost pressures last quarter, as COVID-19 pressured parts of its global manufacturing and supply chains while generating big demand swings in different markets. Following its gross margin and operating margin will help investors judge how well the company executed through that turmoil.

Gross profit margin has been on the upswing recently, thanks to the combination of higher prices and reduced costs, and operating margin improved by about 2 percentage points in the most recent quarter. More progress along those lines would further separate P&G from industry peers as a real earnings powerhouse.

Cash flow trends have been improving, too, and the company also lifted its outlook on this score last quarter. That's the key reason why P&G just raised its dividend by 6% after two consecutive annual 4% hikes. It marked the 64th consecutive year that the company has increased its payout.

A murky outlook

This aggressive dividend increase suggests management isn't too concerned about the uncertain economic environment today. And it's likely that the consumer staples giant will have positive comments about its financial position, even if COVID-19 causes executives to widen the range of their short-term operating outlook. Heading into Friday's report, that forecast calls for sales to rise by about 4.5% in fiscal 2020, with earnings expanding at an even faster pace.