Unilever shares soared after it said sales were almost flat in the first half of the year – far better than a sharp fall predicted by analysts.
Demand for items to consume at home and hygiene products offset big falls in grab-and-go categories.
Underlying sales fell 0.3pc in the second quarter compared with a 3.9pc decline forecast by analysts. Pre-tax profits rose 4pc to €4.5bn (£3.5bn).
Shares rose as much as 8pc on Thursday, leaving Unilever worth £122bn and overtaking AstraZeneca to be the most valuable firm on the FTSE 100.
The company also confirmed plans to sell its tea business, which include brands such as PG Tips and Lipton.
However, it will retain its tea operations in India and Indonesia as well as stakes in ready-to-drink beverages.
“The balance of Unilever’s tea brands and geographies and all tea estates have an exciting future, and this potential can best be achieved as a separate entity,” the company said.
Sophie Lund-Yates at Hargreaves Lansdown said the tea demerger was the “latest effort by the consumer goods giant to shed some weight in the face of rapidly changing customer habits”.
“Boosting agility and becoming more streamlined is a core pillar of Unilever’s strategy to get sales moving in the right direction, as things were sluggish even before the added pressure of coronavirus disruption,” she said.
The maker of Magnum and Ben & Jerry’s ice cream has still been looking for purchases over the past six months despite the pandemic, chief executive Alan Jope said.
“If good opportunities emerge, we’re certainly in a strong position, especially with our healthy balance sheet, to take advantage of that,” he said.
The FTSE 100 company is in the process of abandoning its dual Anglo-Dutch legal structure.
“Further down the road, that could give us opportunities to look at more transformational acquisitions,” Mr Jope said. “But I want to stress there’s nothing of that nature on the imminent radar.”
Unilever has increased its capacity to make hand sanitizer by about 600 times and expanding its Lifebuoy hygiene brand to more than 50 markets.