* Q1 underlying sales up 3.6 pct vs 3.3 pct analyst forecast
* Forex lowered sales by 8.9 pct
* Says overall markets are slowing, forex impact growing
* Reviews Ragu, SlimFast brands amid portfolio pruning (Adds outlook, US portfolio review, share price, byline)
By Martinne Geller
LONDON, April 24 (Reuters) - Unilever said it may sell its underperforming Ragu pasta sauce and SlimFast brands as it reported higher-than-expected first-quarter sales on Thursday, led by strong sales in Northern Europe of personal and household cleaning products.
The Anglo-Dutch maker of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, Dove soap and Lipton tea announced a strategic review of its North American pasta sauce business, which includes the market-leading Ragu brand, and the troubled SlimFast brand whose sales have tumbled in its biggest market, the United States.
Unilever bought SlimFast for about $2.4 billion in 2000, when it was a leader in a burgeoning weight-loss market that has since struggled amid a lack of innovation and an economic downturn that also led Nestle to sell most of its Jennie Craig business.
“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.”
The review follows the sale of Skippy peanut butter and Wishbone salad dressings and marks the end of the reshaping of the US portfolio, Huet said on a conference call. Unilever has said it wants to focus more on higher-margin personal care products in higher-growth markets of Asia and Latin America.
In the first quarter, underlying sales, which exclude the impact of foreign exchange and acquisitions and disposals, rose 3.6 percent. That was down from growth of 4.1 percent in the fourth quarter but 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’s shares were down 1.5 percent in London at 25.95 pounds, having dropped 6.9 percent over the last 12 months. Its London and Amsterdam shares each trade at around 19 times forward earnings, in line with peers such as Nestle, Danone and Reckitt Benckiser Group.
Overall, Unilever’s first-quarter revenue fell 6.3 percent to 11.4 billion euros ($15.8 billion), due to an 8.9 percent hit from exchange rates that was bigger than analysts had expected. The stronger euro has hit revenue as two thirds of the company’s sales come from outside the eurozone.
At current spot rates, Unilever said foreign exchange should reduce full-year sales by 5 to 6 percent this year, a slight worsening from the 5 percent hit it forecast in January.
At the same time, it said sales growth for its markets overall was slowing to somewhere above 2.5 percent. In January, it said its markets were growing at around 3 percent. The company did however repeat that it expects its own growth to continue to outpace the broader markets.
$1 = 0.7231 Euros Reporting by Martinne Geller; Editing by Elaine Hardcastle