Campbell Soup expects sales to fall as lockdowns ease; shares fall

(Reuters) - Campbell Soup Co CPB.N on Thursday forecast first-quarter revenue largely above market estimates due to pandemic-buying, but said it expects sales to drop off in the second-half of its fiscal year as people start dining out again, sending shares down 5.5%.

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The packaged food industry has seen an unprecedented wave of demand since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, with people on lockdown stocking their pantries and eating more at home. At Campbell, for instance, fourth-quarter U.S. soup sales rose 52%, despite having struggled to grow for several years.

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But it is unlikely the company will be able to sustain the sales growth it has seen since the start of March for its Prego pasta sauces and Goldfish crackers.

New Jersey-based Campbell expects lower fiscal second-half sales, but said demand will not entirely revert back to pre-COVID levels because the pandemic has put its cookies, potato chips and sauces in the pantries of households that did not previously buy them.

Given how many food companies are reporting very strong numbers with extremely positive tones, Campbell’s commentary was slightly shy of expectations this morning, J.P. Morgan analyst Ken Goldman said.

Elevated demand has put pressure on Campbell’s inventory levels, expenses and supply chain this year. Campbell said it spent $50 million on fourth-quarter COVID-related costs, and that it expects expenses to continue in the first half of this fiscal year at a “moderated level compared to the fourth quarter.”

Bernstein analyst Alexia Howard said she questions whether Campbell will be able to retain its new customers in a post-COVID world - particularly those currently buying packaged soup - due to longstanding concerns about tinned food and sodium content.

Campbell forecast current-quarter net sales to rise between 5% and 7%, and adjusted profit to be between 88 cents and 92 cents per share. Analysts on average expected Campbell to earn 90 cents per share and its net sales to rise 5.2%, according to IBES data from Refinitiv.

Campbell said net sales rose to $2.11 billion in the fourth quarter, ended Aug. 2, from $1.78 billion, a year earlier, beating expectations of $2.08 billion.

Excluding one-time items, Campbell earned 63 cents per share, compared with analysts’ expectation of 60 cents per share.

Reporting by Praveen Paramasivam in Bengaluru and Richa Naidu in Chicago. Additional reporting by Nivedita Balu; Editing by Shinjini Ganguli, Steve Orlofsky and Tom Brown