AMSTERDAM (Reuters) – Ahold Delhaize, the supermarket retailer, reported on Wednesday a strong fourth quarter in its core U.S. and European markets, as the COVID-19 pandemic drove robust online sales.

Net sales in the last three months of 2021 came in at 20.1 billion euros ($22.8 billion), compared to a forecast of 19.8 billion in a company-compiled poll of 18 analysts.

Underlying operating income was 838 million euros in the same period, compared to a forecast of 820 million.

Ahold, the owner of the U.S. Stop & Shop, Giant, Food Lion and Hannaford chains, said that it was confident it would be able to increase sales in 2022 due to more food-at-home consumption and online food purchases.

But its underlying earnings per share (EPS) is expected to decline by low- to mid-single-digits versus 2021 “driven primarily by a return to historical margin levels in 2022 compared with elevated 2021 levels”, it said.

Ahold said its underlying operating margin is expected to be at least 4.0% for the full year.

($1=0.8804 euros)

(Reporting by Anthony Deutsch; editing by Clarence Fernandez and Jason Neely)