Unilever sales top estimates; may sell Ragu, SlimFast

LONDON Thu Apr 24, 2014 3:00am EDT

LONDON (Reuters) - Consumer goods maker Unilever (ULVR.L) (UNc.AS) reported higher-than-expected first-quarter underlying sales on Thursday, despite a later Easter holiday and a slowing in some emerging markets.

The Anglo-Dutch maker of Ben & Jerry's ice cream, Dove soap and Lipton tea also announced a strategic review of its North American pasta sauce business, which includes the Ragu brand, and the SlimFast brand.

"It may lead to a disposal but it doesn't necessarily have to," Chief Financial Officer Jean Marc Huet said. "We're looking at all options."

First-quarter revenue fell 6.3 percent to 11.4 billion euros ($15.8 billion), due to an 8.9 percent hit from currency exchange rates that was bigger than analysts had expected.

Underlying sales, which exclude the impact of foreign exchange and acquisitions and disposals, rose 3.6 percent. On that basis, analysts had on average forecast growth of 3.3 percent.

Sales in emerging markets rose 6.6 percent, slower than the 8.4 percent growth in the fourth quarter but still greater than the overall market, which Huet said rose about 5 percent.

Unilever said it still aims to achieve full-year sales volume growth ahead of the wider market, core operating margin improvement and strong cash flow.

In January it forecast annual sales growth of 3 to 5 percent versus 3 percent for the market.

(Reporting by Martinne Geller; Editing by Erica Billingham)

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