By Saabira Chaudhuri 

LONDON -- Unilever PLC said American shoppers are still stocking up on its hand sanitizer and condiments such as Hellmann's mayonnaise, as they weather the ebb and flow of the coronavirus pandemic by washing their hands, staying home more and cooking for themselves.

Key emerging markets are also bouncing back, led by Brazil, where government subsidies have energized consumer spending. Both trends delivered strong sales growth at Unilever, the maker of Ben & Jerry's ice cream and Dove soap.

North American underlying sales -- which strip out currency moves and deal making -- grew 9.1% in the third quarter compared with the same period a year ago, a roaring pace for a market that has in recent years delivered paltry growth. Most of that came from higher volumes, instead of price increases.

Unilever shares were down 1.4% in early trading.

Mayonnaise, Sir Kensington's line of condiments and ice cream brands such as Talenti powered sales were big sellers. With the U.S. still wrestling with rising Covid-19 outbreaks in many places, sales of cleaners -- from Dove soap to Suave hand sanitizer -- were strong, too.

"The U.S. drivers were around hygiene, in particular hand sanitizer," Chief Financial Officer Graeme Pitkethly said Thursday, after the company released sales figures. He also said the company was "seeing very, very strong growth in the foods portfolio. This is all about in-home consumption."

Unilever's beauty and personal-care unit, which includes brands such as Dove and TreSemme shampoo, also performed better than expected globally. Mr. Pitkethly said increased hand washing helped outweigh a continued slump in the use of deodorants, skin care and hairstyling products, which have suffered as people spend more time at home.

In Brazil, one of Unilever's largest emerging markets, President Jair Bolsonaro is funneling generous cash payments to millions of poor to help them ride out the economic storm.

"We saw quite a bounce back in Brazil," Mr. Pitkethly said. In Argentina, another big market, Unilever was able to raise prices and boost revenue.

Unilever differs from its big global peers, such as Procter & Gamble Co. and Reckitt Benckiser Group PLC, because its emerging market footprint is substantially larger than its presence in developed markets, often making for volatile results in individual countries. Investors have been closely focused on whether Brazil, India and other hard-hit emerging economies would recover in the third quarter. Many did, but all for different reasons.

Emerging market underlying sales jumped 5.3% in the quarter, year-over-year, while developed market sales were up 3.1%. In the previous quarter, sales in the emerging world declined, hitting their lowest level on record.

Mr. Pitkethly said the situation in India, where strict lockdowns had disrupted its supply chain, had improved as those strictures eased. Production is back to full capacity.

Growth in China accelerated by double digits, as restaurants and cafes reopened, boosting Unilever's "out of home" sales. Demand also picked up for beauty and personal-care products as economic activity picked up.

Overall, the company reported third-quarter underlying sales growth of 4.4%. That is up from 2.9% a year earlier and well above analyst estimates for 1.3% growth. Total reported sales fell to EUR12.93 billion, equivalent to $15.32 billion, compared with EUR13.25 billion a year earlier. Sales were hurt by big currency fluctuations.

Write to Saabira Chaudhuri at


(END) Dow Jones Newswires

October 22, 2020 07:15 ET (11:15 GMT)

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