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Frozen pizza, a novelty 25 years ago, just keeps on prospering. Every year there's a new wrinkle, a new opportunity, as marketers like to say."It's still selling great," said Tom Outlaw, vice president of merchandising for Ingles Markets, Black Mountain, N.C.In the words of Russ Hahn, frozen-food buyer, Scolari's, Sparks, Nev., "Pizza is the part of the category that is still growing."Figures from

Frozen pizza, a novelty 25 years ago, just keeps on prospering. Every year there's a new wrinkle, a new opportunity, as marketers like to say.

"It's still selling great," said Tom Outlaw, vice president of merchandising for Ingles Markets, Black Mountain, N.C.

In the words of Russ Hahn, frozen-food buyer, Scolari's, Sparks, Nev., "Pizza is the part of the category that is still growing."

Figures from Information Resources, Inc., Chicago, show that frozen pizza's growth is outpacing the frozen category as a whole, more in some markets, like Baltimore-Washington, D.C., than in others.

"Indeed, like most frozen categories, dollars are up pretty strongly and units are pretty flat. That's a department-wide kind of thing. In frozen pizza, it's due to the introduction of new, higher-quality, higher-ring pizzas that people buy fewer of, but the dollars are coming up nicely," explained Carl Henninger, vice president of retail services for IRI, at the annual meeting of the National Frozen Pizza Institute, McLean, Va., two months ago. "Each one they buy at these higher prices drives the average price up, and that trend has been continuing ever since [1995, when] DiGiorno's hit the marketplace."

The same phenomenon is occurring in other frozen categories as well, as higher value products are introduced, he said.

However, Henninger said there is softness in the Great Lakes Region: Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Ohio, an area that traditionally is the strongest marketplace for frozen pizzas, particularly in Wisconsin, where many of them are made. Milwaukee was the worst performing of the 64 marketplaces that IRI tracks, he said, in terms of frozen pizza sales. There, the segment lost 2.5% in dollar sales, versus the 8% growth in frozens as a whole for the year ended Aug. 15, 1999. In contrast, sales were up 23% in the Baltimore-Washington, D.C. area for the same period.

"The Baltimore-Washington area is quite competitive. With the cooperation of our vendors, we aggressively marketed and priced frozen pizza in the last year. One other thing is that we've offered Tony's pizzas in the past, but not in the recent past. We started carrying them again, and we included 16 new items. Certainly they were cooperative with their pricing and the increase, I am sure, is a result of some of those changes," said Greg TenEyck, director of public affairs for Safeway's Eastern Division, with 125 stores in the area.

With regard to frozen pizza, Henninger of IRI continued, he did the same analysis last year, and although he could not quote the exact numbers per se, he said Baltimore-Washington was not among the top 8 markets in growth last year, and Milwaukee was not among the 8 worst markets in growth a year ago, so these changes are near term.

"I thought it would be interesting to look at the frozen pizza category contrasted with the frozen department, and in both cases, the performance is wildly different," he went on.

For the 52 weeks ending Aug. 15, 1999, total U.S. total frozen department grew at 6%, while frozen pizza grew at 8.2%, so that's in frozen pizza's favor. Whereas the total frozen department is doing 2% better, the pizza is doing almost 3 times better growth wise than the total U.S. average.

Over the past year, Henninger told the NFPI, 16 new items have come out in frozen pizza -- a 27% increase in products -- and the percentage of households purchasing at least one frozen pizza in 1998 was 70%. "That's pretty strong for a frozen category, but it still means that 30% of the households were not buying, so that marks a big opportunity," Henninger noted.

Last year's California Pizza Kitchen crossover from restaurant into the frozen section, with Kraft Foods as a partner, continues in most of the test markets. The CPK product dropped out of upstate New York, but "we're doing very well in the other test markets," said Shelagh Thomee, a spokeswoman for Kraft. She said CPK was recently introduced to Los Angeles, a logical location since the company's headquarters are there.

Wolfgang Puck is the only other restaurant brand listed in the top 25 compiled by IRI. It is 24th, with a very slight gain (0.2%) in dollar sales, to $13.1 million, but a drop of 1.9% in units.

A standout performer was Red Baron Bake to Rise Frozen Pizza, a new product, with sales of over $70 million for the year that ended July 18, 1999, according to IRI, which represented a 532% gain in dollars and put it in 11th place. The only other brand with triple digit growth was Mama Celeste, in 19th position with sales of $20 million, a 127% rise. Price promotions helped move the Freschetta brand, which witnessed not only a 38.7% increase in dollar sales, but a 44% hike in unit volume as well.

DiGiorno Frozen Pizza is the brand leader, with sales of $310 million, an increase of 12.9% in dollar sales and 10% in units for the year. Tombstone, another Kraft brand, followed with an increase of 13.5% in dollar sales and 8.3% in unit volume. Red Baron, Tony's, Totino's Party Pizza, Freschetta, private label, Stouffer's, Jack's Original and Celeste Pizza For One round out the Top Ten.

Kevin Mills, assistant manager of the HyVee store in Austin, Minn., hasn't seen any of the restaurant brands yet in his store, however, he offered some observations on the movement of the category. Pizza Hut got it going with the sauce-stuffed crust, he said. "Tombstone used to dominate. Kraft is the best at merchandising. They're doing cross promotions, with Coke and even some of the beer companies. You see 3 for $10 offers on Tombstone now and Jack's is a draw. You have these value-added things, one comes with bread sticks on the side, and the sauce stuffed crust."

One Milwaukee retailer reached by SN said "I noticed a rise in frozen pizza sales. I saw a drop in some if you don't advertise, but Tony's, Red Baron came in with a deal, for an everyday low price, and the sales went up almost triple. It's still on. We had Tony's Super Rise 4 for $10, usually $4.49 apiece, and Red Baron, 3 for $9," said Michael Ruby, manager of Sheridan's Supermarket, Milwaukee. He said he carries DiGiorno, and sells a couple of cases a week, but it's too expensive for the people of the area.

Bryan Nichols, category manager of frozen foods for Marsh Supermarkets, Indianapolis, told SN "our sales are very, very strong. But the sales are stronger in your traditional Tombstone and Red Baron than they are in the new rising crust varieties. That's different from probably anywhere else in the country, because our traditional pizza business here is so much more built up than it is in other parts of the country."

Following an upswing in rising crust pizza, Marsh decided to introduce a private label rising crust product, Nichols said. Marsh's own brand, called Marsh Rising Crust Pizza, will debut next month, in one size: a 12-inch pie in four flavors including Pepperoni, Supreme, Four Cheese and Sausage. As tracked by IRI, private label frozen pizza gained over 13% in dollar sales and 3% in units, and is in 7th place, between Freschetta and Stouffers, with sales of $113.59 million.

The kosher segment also seems to be getting more prominence lately. Jim Winkle, special markets research analyst, with Albertsons, Boise, Idaho, reports "there are two kosher pizzas we literally can't keep on the shelves" but he declined to give their names. Winkle was one of the speakers at the recent KosherFest trade. There were several pizza manufacturers also at the recent Private Label Manufacturers Association show in Chicago.

Kosher pizza is either plain cheese or cheese and vegetable. Winkle explained that for a pizza to be certified kosher, the equipment on which it is made needs to be kosher, as do all the ingredients, and the box must be carefully labeled.

Rabbi Moishe Chomsky, rabbinic coordinator and kosher merchandiser for the Foodarama ShopRites in central New Jersey showed SN a sampling from its clearly signed kosher frozens section. He pointed to an Amnon's brand kosher pizza which claimed 55% reduced fat, to appeal to anyone watching the fat grams, and to Tofutti dairy-free pizza, which also appeals to the lactose intolerant.