CHICAGO — Snacking has increased sharply in developed markets since the outbreak of the coronavirus (COVID-19), and Mondelez International, Inc. has been a major beneficiary of this growth, said Dirk Van de Put, the company’s chairman and chief executive officer. Buoyed by extraordinary results in North America, the company overcame struggles in emerging markets and enjoyed strong sales and adjusted earnings growth in the first quarter ended March 31.

Operating income in the North America segment of Mondelez was $381 million in the first quarter, up 19% from the first quarter last year. Adjusted operating income in the region was up 20%. Net sales were $1.9 billion, up 15%.

First-quarter net income at Mondelez was $753 million, equal to 53¢ per share on the common stock, down 18% from $914 million, or 63¢ per share, in the first quarter of 2019. Net sales were $6.8 billion, up 2.6% from $6.5 billion in 2019. On a constant currency basis, first-quarter net income per share was up 11%.

In Nasdaq trading early April 29 after the results were announced, shares of Mondelez fell $1.02, or 2%, to $50.15.

Initially buoyed by pantry loading that generated a 30% surge in sales versus a year earlier at the outset of the lockdown period in the United States, Mr. Van de Put said growth eased to low double digits in the weeks that followed and a high single-digit rate more recently. Based on interviews with consumers around the world, Mr. Van de Put said in an April 29 conference call the sales surge was not just a case of hoarding.

“We can say it’s clear there is increased snacking,” he said.

Based on the interviews, Mr. Van de Put identified three reasons for the increased snacking, beginning with the major shift from out-of-home consumption to more eating in the home.

“And in home, there is more grazing, more continuous eating and snacking takes up a much bigger role, particularly biscuits,” he said. “The snacking categories that consumers tell us they are eating more (include) cheese. So Philadelphia is benefiting. Also, it’s fruit and veggies. It’s biscuits and some salted snacks.”

Dynamics of home sequestration also favor snacking, Mr. Van de Put said.

“Everybody is sort of cooped up in the house, (and snacking) brings back a feeling of normalcy, of togetherness, calming everybody down,” he said. “We see them quote that as a big reason.”

The third plus for Mondelez in the current environment has been consumer experimentation, bringing new consumers to Mondelez products for the first time, Mr. Van de Put said. He estimated that between 15% and 20% of sales of Oreo and Ritz sales were to consumers who were new to the brands.

“But in some of our other brands like Fig Newtons or Nutter Butter, it’s over 40% new consumers,” he said. “So it’s clear that the consumption is going up, the penetration is going up.”

Cookies, which account for 45% of Mondelez revenue, enjoyed the “biggest spike in demand,” Mr. Van de Put said. It also is the category that enjoyed the widest share increase.

“Overall, just to give a few examples. In the US, our biscuit brands, Oreo, belVita, Ritz, Triscuit and Wheat Thins out-posted mid-teens growth or more in the first quarter, which drove share gains of 2.5 points in the last reading,” he said.

Mondelez during the quarter scored its widest market share gain ever, the company said. Gum and candy sales did not perform as well.

Pressed about whether the stepped-up purchases represent stashing or actual consumption of Mondelez products, Mr. Van de Put expressed confidence sales would not be dragged down in coming weeks and months by consumers working down their home inventories.

“We do not have the impression that the consumer is sitting on a huge pantry full of our cookies,” he said. “We’ve seen — through these interviews, some significant consumption. And so we are not necessarily thinking there will be an enormous pantry de-loading.”

Mr. Van de Put hesitated to describe how the unfolding recession might affect the company’s business, and Mondelez has suspended issuing earnings guidance for the time being. He noted considerable uncertainty prevailing about how the recession may unfold, adding that conditions will vary country by country in which the company does business. Still, based on the most recent recessions, he said Mondelez operates in key categories — biscuits and chocolate — that are durable and haven’t suffered much during economic downturns.

“I would also say our products are affordable, and they are skewed to in-home consumption,” he said. “And as we discussed before, this is really a recession whereby in-home consumption is benefiting from it.”

To meet the increased demand in North America, Mondelez has focused on the company’s “most important SKUs (stock-keeping units),” Mr. Van de Put said.

“Our strong relationship with our suppliers has helped us maintain critical raw materials and packaging supplies,” he said.

The company has taken other steps to adjust to the changing market and economic environment, including developing “more tailored promotions,” reducing capital expenditures, closely monitoring foreign exchange markets and adjusting as necessary, increasing liquidity by tapping into credit facilities and suspending share buybacks.”

The shift to in-home eating also has factored in the approach Mondelez has taken toward marketing. For example, the company saw that in China, during the lockdown period, cooking with Oreos had become popular.

“So we switched our communication to cooking with Oreos, and it had a great effect on our sales,” he said. “So we're doing a number of things. Oreo around the world is about staying playful. So (we) make sure that what our brands communicate is linked to what is in the mind of the consumer or on the mind of the consumer.”

Conditions in emerging markets were far more difficult than in the United States and Europe, with serious disruptions in certain cases, Mr. Van de Put said. Abrupt lockdowns made sales and distribution more challenging and even caused production interruptions when employees were not able to reach their places of work.

“Despite these difficulties and the headwinds, we continue to see that the long-term prospects of emerging markets remain attractive,” he said. “Our emerging market footprint is a differentiator and is a key part of our long-term growth strategy.”

Organic quarterly sales, adjusted for divestitures, acquisitions and currency, were up 7% in Latin America, 2.2% in Asia, the Middle East and Africa and 4.3% in Europe.

During questions and answers, Mr. Van de Put and Luca Zaramella, executive vice president and chief financial officer, offered details into the challenges the company experienced in emerging countries. Mr. Van de Put said severe lockdowns caused disruptions in India, the Philippines, Malaysia and then they shifted gradually into Latin America and South Africa.

Mr. Zaramella offered India as a case study for the extreme nature of disruptions Mondelez faced.

“We all know the potential of that market,” he said. “It is a $1 billion company for us. I would tell you that when the original lockdown was announced — and by the way, there was an unofficial lockdown before that — the company went absolutely blank. And it was impossible, given the fact that we have multiple plants to actually get people into the plants and to have people from the distribution centers to be able to supply the distributors. And it was impossible to even get trucks. So the first phase of the crisis, we literally sold close to zero in that specific market. Today, I would say, we are recovering, and we are a little bit higher than half of the sales that we had last year on a more regular basis. So, the situation is improving day by day.”