Kimberly-Clark (KMB 1.44%) shareholders have outpaced the broader market during the recent slump, with investors seeking more safety through the volatility. The company isn't likely to see collapsing sales, even in a recession. Consumers don't pull back on spending for essentials like tissue paper and diapers during downturns.

In fact, Kimberly-Clark might get a modest revenue boost thanks to stocking-up behavior and increased at-home time for people across the U.S. and Europe. Against that positive operating environment, let's look at a few metrics to follow when the owner of the Huggies and Kleenex brands announces its fiscal 2020 first-quarter earnings results on Wednesday, April 22.

A baby having her diaper changed.

Image source: Getty Images.

Sales volumes

Kimberly-Clark's sales might seem stronger at first glance than they really are. The company posted a 4% increase for the full 2019 year, which isn't far from the 4.5% rate that Procter & Gamble (PG 0.30%) has been notching. Yet P&G's growth is more robust. It's coming from a balance of increased sales volumes and higher average prices. Kimberly-Clark, meanwhile, has seen decreased volume in recent quarters. Sure, higher prices offset those losses, but that's not a sustainable growth position.

That vulnerability is one reason CEO Mike Hsu and his team predicted that organic sales gains would slow to about half their 2019 rate. We'll find out on Wednesday whether that outlook has changed due to extra spending on essentials tied to COVID-19 containment efforts. Ideally, Kimberly-Clark will get a sales contribution from both higher prices and increased volumes so that its market share improves.

Profit challenges

Steadily growing profitability is a pillar of the investing thesis for this stock, and so far Kimberly-Clark has succeeded on this score. Adjusted profits have outpaced sales gains in each of the last four years thanks to the combination of those higher prices and reduced costs. The company still lands well below its main rival here, though, as P&G's operating margin is above 21% of sales compared to Kimberly Clark's 18%.

Both companies likely saw some unusual expenses over the last few months as the supply chain was disrupted in China and retailers across Europe and the U.S. began feeling the pinch from consumer stock-up behavior starting in mid-March. It will be interesting to see how well Kimberly-Clark executed through those disruptive supply-and-demand swings, and how those moves affected operating margin and cash flow.

The outlook

Procter & Gamble will announce its earnings results a few days before Kimberly-Clark, and heading into these reports, the industry leader is predicting 4.5% sales growth after having boosted its outlook in two successive earnings calls. Kimberly-Clark has weaker momentum, with gains slowing to 3% in the last quarter and an outlook calling for just a 2% increase in 2020.

The stock's movement this week might turn on whether Kimberly-Clark's updated forecast still implies market share losses when compared to P&G and other peers. Its global retailing business is well suited for this kind of environment, and even modest demand growth could power robust earnings if Kimberly-Clark can execute through the disruption.

But shareholders have yet to see its restructured business fire on all growth cylinders, so that's a key piece missing from the overall return picture for this consumer staples giant.