Underlying sales growth in North America increased 4.3% for the quarter across all its consumer products categories driven by continued demand for foods consumed at home, said the company.
"We expect that demand for hygiene and in-home foods will remain higher than pre-COVID levels although we will start to lap strong comparators, and we'll see some slowing," said Unilever CEO Alan W. Jope on the company's Q1 2021 earnings call last week.
Coinciding with its strong performance across its key business segments, Unilever announced a share buyback program of up to €3bn (USD$2.5bn) beginning this month, a move which reflects the company's "strong cash-flow position and balance sheet," said Jope.
Increased ice cream demand, Hellmann's registers double-digit growth
"Foods and refreshments did have a very good quarter with nearly 10% USG (underlying sales growth), over 7% volume growth and good price growth at 2.3%. In-home growth was again double-digit as demand for home cooking and especially ice cream remained high," said Jope.
By brand, Ben & Jerry's grew sales by over 30% for the quarter compared to Q1 2020, and Magnum ice cream brand also grew by double digits supported by the brand's newest flavor launch, Double Gold Caramel Billionaire, across sticks and pint formats, noted Jope.
In its kids segment, the company also launched Spiderman-branded popsicles as part of its Disney range, which meet the company's nutritional standards of 110 calories or fewer per serving.
According to IRI sales data, US retail dollar sales of ice cream grew 16.8% and unit sales grew 12% in the 52 weeks ending Dec. 27, 2020. Frozen novelties dollar sales increased 18.1%, with unit sales up 10.6% over the same period.
"We continue to reach consumers directly at their home and on their sofas through our Ice Cream Now business which delivers ice cream to your door, and this again doubled sales and continues to expand distribution reach," added Jope.
Hellmann's Mayonnaise also experienced increased sales for the quarter driven by new marketing tactics and advertising and new plant-based product innovations, noted Jope.
"Hellmann’s grew double digits with the brand’s first-ever advertising during the US Super Bowl and our vegan mayonnaise has rolled out across 30 markets across retail and foodservice. We’re extending to the range to new formats like a squeeze bottle as well as flavor variants which are being launched across key markets," he said.
Unilever's out-of-home business started to show signs of a slow recovery in Q1 2021, said Jope: "The out-of-home foods business has returned to growth vs. 2020. But at a total level we’re still tracking below a 2019 base. We’ll be working with our partners to fully leverage the sales acceleration as and when restrictions are relaxed."
Outside of food, Unilever has made a targeted investment in the area of personal nutrition making key acquisitions of high-growth brands including Olly (acquired in 2019), SmartyPants Vitamins, and nootropic supplement brand, Onnit.
"We continue to grow quickly and add scale in functional nutrition," said Jobe. "We’re also making good progress on our strategic change agenda – the priority segments of prestige beauty and functional nutrition are the two categories where we’ve been the most acquisitive in recent years, and they’re performing well."