Global food retailer Ahold Delhaize has reported that its net sales increased by 5.8% at constant exchange rates to €18.3bn in the first quarter of the year.

The growth was driven mainly by group comparable sales, which grew by 4.2% year over year, excluding sales of gasoline.

The company has attributed this positive impact partially to demand related to the Covid-19 pandemic, especially in Europe.

Ahold Delhaize’s comparable sales increased by around 1.3% due to favourable calendar shifts and weather impacts.

During the quarter, the company’s net consumer online sales increased by 103.3% at constant rates to around €2.68bn. The increase was supported by the company’s acquisition of online grocery delivery service provider FreshDirect in January.

Group underlying operating income declined by 6.1% at constant rates to €849m, and underlying operating margin was down by 60 basis points to 4.6% at constant rates.

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Ahold Delhaize spent around €150m in the first quarter on Covid-19 relief care. This expenditure, compared to only €70m last year, negatively impacted the group underlying operating margin in the quarter.

The company’s underlying income from continuing operations was €566m, a decrease of 11.9% in the quarter. Its diluted earnings per share (EPS) on an underlying basis was €0.54, down by 8.4%.

In the US, Ahold Delhaize’s comparable sales, excluding petrol, rose by 1.7%. Online sales in the petrol segment increased by 188.3% in constant currency.

In Europe, comparable sales, excluding gas, increased by 8.3%, and net consumer online sales by 78.6%.

Ahold Delhaize president and CEO Frans Muller said: “In the first quarter, our brands, together with our suppliers, remained focused on fulfilling their vital role in society by maintaining food and product supplies to local communities.

“Our consistent focus on safety, while at the same time providing great customer service and community support, have helped drive a strong quarter relative to our expectations.”

Headquartered in Zaandam, the Netherlands, Ahold Delhaize operated 7,204 stores in the US, the Netherlands, Belgium and Central and Southeastern Europe until the end of the first quarter.

The company has raised its underlying EPS outlook for the year and expects to increase in the low to mid-teen range compared to 2019 levels. Its group net consumer online sales are expected to grow by more than 40% compared to last year.

Last November, the company revealed new initiatives to significantly improve its online capacity and advance its omnichannel offerings.