A ‘volatile and unpredictable’ year: Unilever Q4 and 2020 net sales dip

By Kacey Culliney contact

- Last updated on GMT

Despite the net sales dip, Unilever's Lifebuoy hand care brand grew by 50% - propelled by hang hygiene concerns worldwide (Getty Images)
Despite the net sales dip, Unilever's Lifebuoy hand care brand grew by 50% - propelled by hang hygiene concerns worldwide (Getty Images)

Related tags: Unilever, financial results, 2020, 2021, COVID-19, e-commerce

Personal care major Unilever has reported a net sales drop for the fourth quarter and full year of 2020, though its CEO remains pleased with the company’s resilience and volume-based growth.

The European-headquartered consumer goods giant totted up net sales of €12.1bn for the fourth quarter (Q4) of 2020, down 4.2% on the previous year. Unilever’s largest division beauty and personal care generated €5.1bn, down 7.4% on the previous year. Home care was also down 6.5% but Unilever’s food and refreshment division up 1.2% for the quarter.

For the full year of 2020, Unilever pulled in net sales of €50.7bn, down 2.4% on 2019. The beauty and personal care division contributed €21.1bn of this, down 3.4% on 2019.

Unilever said the operating environment had been “volatile since the COVID-19 pandemic began in early 2020”,​ with continued changes in consumer behaviour and channel dynamics through to Q4.

It noted, however, that underlying sales growth across all three divisions was up for the full year, notably by 1.2% for beauty and personal care. Total full year net profit was also up 0.8% at €6.1bn.

“In a volatile and unpredictable year, we have demonstrated Unilever’s resilience and agility through the COVID-19 pandemic,”​ said Alan Jope, CEO of Unilever.

Jope said these were a “strong set of results”​ achieved under “the most difficult of circumstances”.

Skin cleansing and oral care key growing segments

Within Unilever’s beauty and personal care division, skin cleansing experienced mid-teens volume-led growth in 2020, oral care also grew, as did its Lifebuoy brand – by over 50%. Skin care, deodorants and hair care, however, all saw volume and price declines in 2020.

Unilever’s prestige beauty unit was also heavily impacted by store closures worldwide, but over the year the company had transitioned this offering to over 50% e-commerce.

Unilever said this focus on e-commerce would continue in 2021 as one of its key objectives to “lead in the channels of the future”.​  

Amy Rollinson, analyst at Euromonitor International, said an e-commerce focus would be critical for Unilever to secure future growth.

“As consumers change the ways in which they shop, Unilever must accelerate their e-commerce and digital offerings, which have been somewhat limited in past as a means to engage consumers and drive growth. Communication of their strong CSR efforts will also remain key as beauty consumers increasingly look for brands with purpose,”​ Rollinson said.

Jope said: “While volatility and unpredictability will continue throughout 2021, we begin the year in good shape and are confident in our ability to adapt to a rapidly changing environment​.”

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