Unilever (NYSE:UL), maker of everything from that jar of Hellmann's in your fridge to the tube of Vaseline in your medicine cabinet, showed a 45% decline in first-quarter 2009 earnings per share. That makes for an ugly headline, but a closer look reveals that the recession hasn’t fully snatched away the staple from this consumer-staples giant. 

First of all, the earnings slide was largely a result of a one-time profit in the year-ago period, which resulted from the sale of a business unit and an unusually low tax rate. This quarter, commodity costs and foreign-currency translation also hurt the bottom line. I'm not arguing that these factors aren’t significant, but they're no basis for believing that value-focused consumers are running screaming from Unilever's name brands.

On that note, while the company saw volume declines in Western Europe, its U.S. market share improved. That suggests that Unilever's food unit -- known for rib-sticking Ragu sauces and Bertolli frozen dinners -- isn’t having its pantry poached by private-label food producers Ralcorp (NYSE:RAH) and Treehouse Foods (NYSE:THS). Also, Latin America posted impressive sales growth of 11%. That result squares with the consumer strength that competitor Colgate-Palmolive (NYSE:CL) has reported for the region.

Putting it all together, Unilever's volume slipped by 1.8%, while underlying sales growth -- a measure that excludes the effects of currency and acquisitions and disposals -- rose by 4.8%. But given that volume performance worsened from the fourth-quarter 2008 decline of 1.6%, it would seem that Unilever's near-term prospects don't smell nearly as sweet as its personal-care products. In effect, Unilever had to raise prices to increase sales. Let's remember that companies can rely on price increases and cost-cutting for only so long: Sooner or later, earnings growth comes down to selling more stuff.

So when can we expect volume to turn positive? You got me. I can tell you that management is focusing on boosting volume through product innovation, although this is the sort of strategy that I prefer to see before I believe. And while volume trends improved as the first quarter progressed, I do wonder what will happen to consumer behavior should recent hopes for a late-2009 economic recovery prove to be overly imaginative. 

All in all, Unilever is holding up fairly well, and unless the global population decides to protest economic strife by boycotting food and/or bathing, the company should continue to do fine. Investors who pick up shares now will be rewarded by the company's 4% dividend yield, which beats the payouts of competitors Procter & Gamble (NYSE:PG) and Kimberly-Clark (NYSE:KMB). And at some point in the future, a healthier global economy will put the consumer back into this consumer-staples survivor.

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