The London-based company, which makes products like Fairy washing-up liquid, Dove soaps, savoury food spread Marmite and Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, expects cost inflation to continue in 2023, forecasting net material inflation in the first half of around 1.5 billion euros ($1.6 billion).
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The packaged goods industry has hiked up prices over the past year to cope with surging costs of everything from cocoa and sunflower oil to wheat. The industry had already been battling Covid-era supply chain issues and raw material expenses when Russia invaded Ukraine, further boosting prices of energy and other commodities.
Chief Executive Alan Jope told CNBC’s “Street Signs” it had been a “good year,” with the fastest growth in more than a decade and a strong performance by its big brands.
On price rises in 2023, he said: “We’re very conscious that the consumer is squeezed, and to remain competitive we want to minimize the amount of pricing. I would characterize where we are right now as being past peak inflation but not yet at peak pricing … there will be some modest fresh price increases still to come.”
But he added the company did not have clear visibility on the second half of the year.
“When it comes to coverage of the inflation that we’ve seen, we’re currently only sitting at about 75% of the total cost inflation covered,” said finance chief Graeme Pitkethly. “That needs to go above 100% to repair our gross margin.”
Underlying price growth for the fourth quarter was a record 13.3% while underlying volumes fell 3.6%.
Some companies in Europe have said they may unwind price hikes introduced in recent years as soaring costs of energy and other raw materials have eased, potentially providing some relief to consumers.
Unilever has had a dramatic past year, featuring three rejected bids to buy GSK
At the end of last month, it named dairy executive Hein Schumacher its incoming CEO.
Hopefully, the new CEO will start as input costs ease, enabling the company to gain back market share, said Tineke Frikkee, a fund manager at Waverton Investment Management.
Underlying sales at Unilever rose 9.2% in the fourth quarter, beating a company-provided analyst estimate of an 8.2% increase.
The underlying operating margin declined by 230 basis points to 16.1%, and is expected to stay at about 16% in the first half.
“Some commentators had hoped for an improving margin,” Waverton’s Frikkee said. “Any margin improvement will be second-half weighted. We may see some downgrades on this.”
— CNBC contributed to this report.