Zaandam, the Netherlands, February 17, 2021 – Ahold Delhaize, one of the world’s largest food retail groups and a leader in both supermarkets and e-commerce, reports fourth quarter results today.
"In 2020, the effects of COVID-19 and social unrest deeply impacted the communities we serve, and created unprecedented challenges for the Ahold Delhaize brands. Despite these challenges, the hundreds of thousands of associates across all our brands, distribution centers, and support offices demonstrated courage and care in protecting the safety of our stores and distribution centers, while providing great customer service and community support. I would like to once again thank each and every one of them for their tremendous efforts in 2020.
"To support the efforts of associates across our brands and businesses, we made significant investments in additional safety measures, enhanced associate pay and benefits, and substantial charitable donations, which resulted in approximately €210 million in COVID-19-related costs in the fourth quarter, and a total of approximately €680 million in 2020. We also committed to contribute over €1.4 billion to improve the security of pension benefits for associates and reduce financial risk for Giant Food and Stop & Shop. In addition, we shifted capital expenditure spending in 2020 to accelerate investments in digital and omnichannel capabilities. As a result of these combined efforts, we believe we ended 2020 in a strategically stronger position than before the COVID-19 pandemic began. We remain focused on making additional investments, as needed, to meet associate, customer and community needs – including continued support of health and safety, which remains a top priority to enable us to further strengthen our brands' positions as leading local omnichannel retailers, now and in the future.
"We are pleased with the underlying Q4 performance in both the U.S. and Europe. Our leading local omnichannel platform generated nearly 130% net consumer online sales growth in the U.S. and nearly 75% growth in Europe in the quarter, at constant exchanges rates. This strong Q4 performance allowed us to exceed our underlying EPS outlook and produce €2.2 billion in free cash flow in 2020, despite significant payments to withdraw or improve the security of pension plans in the U.S. and the Netherlands, and our accelerated investments in digital and omnichannel capabilities.
"Last quarter, we outlined plans to invest in our business to solidify our position as an industry-leading local omnichannel retailer in 2021 and beyond in order to increase our share of the consumer wallet, and find ways to improve our online productivity. Since then, we continued to bring to life, and build upon, several important initiatives, including significantly increasing our online capacity, driven in part by opening over 1,130 U.S. click-and-collect locations to date; launching the GIANT Company Choice Pass on January 19th, which offers unlimited free grocery delivery and pickup with an annual membership fee of $98; and rolling out the no-fee home delivery service AH Compact to additional markets in the Netherlands. We are also exceeding the key multi-year financial targets we outlined at our 2018 Capital Markets Day. As a result, we feel increasingly confident about our prospects in 2021 and beyond, and are now setting more ambitious targets in several key areas of our business, which include:
"Importantly, for the benefit of all our stakeholders, we aim to strike the appropriate balance between investing in the health and safety of associates and customers, supporting our local communities, prioritizing environmental, social, and governance (ESG) initiatives, and returning capital to shareholders. We therefore propose a cash dividend of €0.90 for the financial year 2020, an increase of 18.4% compared to 2019, reflecting our ambition to sustainably grow our dividend per share. This represents a payout ratio of 40%, based on the expected dividend payment on underlying income from continuing operations on a comparable 52-week period."
Ahold Delhaize will continue to solidify its position as industry-leading local omnichannel retailer in 2021 and beyond, concentrating on (1) significantly stepping up online capacity, supply chain and technological capabilities; (2) advancing omnichannel offerings to customers; and (3) addressing the call to action in ESG. We would like to highlight the following initiatives, which add to and build upon many of the initiatives announced in Q3 2020:
Group net sales were €19.6 billion, up 12.8%, or 18.0% at constant exchange rates, driven largely by 11.0% comparable sales growth excluding gasoline. Group comparable sales were positively impacted by demand related to COVID-19. Group net consumer online sales grew 84.2% in Q4 at constant exchange rates. Group underlying operating margin in Q4 was 4.1%, down 0.3 percentage points from the prior year at constant exchange rates. Underlying operating margin was impacted by significant costs related to COVID-19, which amounted to approximately €210 million in Q4, a planned pension expense increase in the Netherlands, transition expenses related to the U.S. supply chain transformation initiative, and other one-time items in the U.S. These impacts were partly offset by a margin benefit of 0.2 percentage points from the calendar effect of a 14-week quarter, compared to 13-week quarter in 2019. Group IFRS-reported operating margin was 0.1% in Q4, impacted by the U.S. multi-employer pension plan withdrawal and settlement agreements.
U.S. comparable store sales excluding gasoline grew 11.2%, due largely to the COVID-19 outbreak. Brand performance was strong across the board. Online sales in the segment were up 128.5% in constant currency. Underlying operating margin in the U.S. was 3.9%, down 0.4 percentage points from the prior year at constant exchange rates, impacted by significant costs related to COVID-19. One-time items and the previously announced transition expenses related to the U.S. supply chain transformation initiative also unfavorably impacted margins by 0.5 percentage points. These impacts were partly offset by a margin benefit of 0.4 percentage points from the calendar effect of a 14-week quarter, compared to 13-week quarter in 2019.
Europe's comparable sales excluding gasoline grew 10.6%, positively impacted by demand related to COVID-19. Net consumer online sales in the segment were up 73.4%. Underlying operating margin in Europe was 5.1%, up 0.1 percentage points from the prior year at constant exchange rates. Operating leverage from higher sales growth was offset in part by higher costs related to COVID-19 as well as €11 million of pension expense in the Netherlands during the quarter. There was a margin benefit of 0.1 percentage points from the calendar effect of a 14-week quarter, compared to a 13-week quarter in 2019.
At bol.com, the online retail platform in the Benelux included within the Europe segment's results, net consumer sales grew by 69.6%. Bol.com's sales from third-party sellers grew 110% in the quarter, with over 41,000 merchant partners on the platform.
Underlying income from continuing operations was €561 million, down 1.0% in the quarter. Ahold Delhaize's net loss was €9 million, down in the quarter due primarily to previously announced provisions for U.S. multi-employer pension plan withdrawal and settlement agreements, which amounted to €841 million. Diluted EPS was €(0.01) and diluted underlying EPS was €0.53, up 2.8%. In the quarter, 12.3 million shares were purchased for €296 million, bringing the total amount to €1,001 million in 2020.
COVID-19 continues to create significant uncertainty in 2021. In addition, COVID-19, and to a smaller extent, a 53-week calendar, significantly distorted Ahold Delhaize's 2020 financial results. Lapping these effects will impact 2021 results, which returns to a 52-week calendar.
In 2021, underlying operating margin is expected to be at least 4%. This outlook reflects a balanced approach with cost savings largely offsetting cost pressures. As there continues to be significant uncertainty due to COVID-19, a more specific range is not provided.
Underlying EPS is expected to grow by mid- to high-single digits relative to 2019. Management believes that framing 2021 underlying EPS guidance relative to 2019, which was prior to COVID-19 and also on a 52-week calendar, provides a helpful context.
Free cash flow is expected to be approximately €1.6 billion. This puts the Company on track to reach €5.6 billion in cumulative free cash flow from 2019-2021 (averaging nearly €1.9 billion annually), which exceeds the Capital Markets Day 2018 target of €5.4 billion (averaging €1.8 billion annually). Capital expenditure is expected to be around €2.2 billion, and reflects the Company's accelerated investments in digital and omnichannel capabilities and investments needed to improve recent M&A operations and capabilities. In addition, Ahold Delhaize remains committed to its dividend policy and share buyback program in 2021, as previously stated.
Considering that the financial year consisted of 53 weeks in 2020, compared with 52 weeks in 2019, with the last quarter of 2020 having 14 weeks, compared to 13 weeks in 2019, Ahold Delhaize has prepared pro forma information in order to provide a comparable base for the results. The pro forma information presented below is intended to provide comparable information on a 13-week basis for the fourth quarter and 52-week basis for the full year of 2020 versus 2019.
This pro forma information represents an estimate of the results related to a 13-week period for Q4 2020 and a 52-week period for the full-year 2020, and is calculated by deducting the estimated results related to the 53rd week of 2020 from the reported results for the fourth quarter and the full-year 2020, as presented in the other sections of this press release.
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Forward-looking statements are subject to risks, uncertainties and other factors that are difficult to predict and that may cause the actual results of Koninklijke Ahold Delhaize N.V. (the “Company”) to differ materially from future results expressed or implied by such forward-looking statements. Such factors include, but are not limited to, risks relating to the Company’s inability to successfully implement its strategy, manage the growth of its business or realize the anticipated benefits of acquisitions; risks relating to competition and pressure on profit margins in the food retail industry; the impact of economic conditions on consumer spending; turbulence in the global capital markets; political developments, natural disasters, pandemics; climate change; raw material scarcity and human rights developments in the supply chain; disruption of operations and other factors negatively affecting the Company’s suppliers; the unsuccessful operation of the Company’s franchised and affiliated stores; changes in supplier terms and the inability to pass on cost increases to prices; risks related to corporate responsibility and sustainable retailing; food safety issues resulting in product liability claims and adverse publicity; environmental liabilities associated with the properties that the Company owns or leases; competitive labor markets, changes in labor conditions and labor disruptions; increases in costs associated with the Company’s defined benefit pension plans; the failure or breach of security of IT systems; the Company’s inability to successfully complete divestitures and the effect of contingent liabilities arising from completed divestitures; antitrust and similar legislation; unexpected outcomes in the Company’s legal proceedings; additional expenses or capital expenditures associated with compliance with federal, regional, state and local laws and regulations; unexpected outcomes with respect to tax audits; the impact of the Company’s outstanding financial debt; the Company’s ability to generate positive cash flows; fluctuation in interest rates; the change in reference interest rate; the impact of downgrades of the Company’s credit ratings and the associated increase in the Company’s cost of borrowing; exchange rate fluctuations; inherent limitations in the Company’s control systems; changes in accounting standards; adverse results arising from the Company’s claims against its self-insurance program; the Company’s inability to locate appropriate real estate or enter into real estate leases on commercially acceptable terms; and other factors discussed in the Company’s public filings and other disclosures.
Forward-looking statements reflect the current views of the Company’s management and assumptions based on information currently available to the Company’s management. Forward-looking statements speak only as of the date they are made, and the Company does not assume any obligation to update such statements, except as required by law.