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03 February 2019, 12:43 | Hattie Nash
Model Bella Hadid is the face of Unilever's Magnum ice cream
However, the company pointed to the tough market setting throughout the previous year, particularly currency devaluations and increasing commodity costs that weighed on demand.
"A few weeks of extra inventory is one of the important steps we are taking to make sure that we minimise any disruption to our customers and consumers", Alan Jope, Unilever's new chief executive, told reporters on Thursday. Organic sales growth of 2.9% last quarter missed consensus forecasts of 3.5% growth, supported by price hikes but with volumes decelerating.
The Anglo-Dutch group, which is working to move on from last year's botched plan to shift its main headquarters to the Netherlands, saw its shares fall almost 3 percent on Thursday as the sales miss overshadowed full-year earnings that were ahead of expectations.
However, Jope admitted that market conditions will remain challenging in 2019.
Unilever said it expected sales growth in 2019 to be in the lower half of the forecast range, but that it remained on track to meet its 2020 goals of improving operating margins and converting net profit into free cash flow. Noting problems in Argentina and Brazil, he called Latin America the most troubled part of the world.
Unilever has said it is stockpiling Magnum and Ben & Jerry's ice cream, in preparation for a no-deal Brexit.
Unilever's ice creams are produced on the Continent.
"There's nothing new about the intention, but so far at least the reality has failed to live up to it", said analysts at RBC Capital Markets, referring to Jope's stated focus on accelerating growth.
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Underlying sales grew by 2.9% in 2018 from the year earlier and, excluding the spreads business, by 3.1%.
But more broadly, sales volume in the Americas was flat. It was the same in Europe, but the group's sales rose 0.8 percent in the region.
Unilever posted a 5.1% decline in turnover to 50.98 billion euro (£44.65 billion), which the company blamed on foreign exchange headwinds of 6.7% and the disposal of the spreads business, which was completed last July.
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