Frozen pizzas of the past had an unsavory reputation as tasteless, cardboard-textured items purchased mostly in the winter months as a cheap alternative to eating at a pizza parlor.
However, this previously sub-par category has made tremendous strides in the past few years, with the advent of self-rising crusts, a seemingly endless choice of topping combinations and an overall improvement in quality that has induced consumers to purchase frozen pizza year-round.
As this category continues to evolve, retailers are starting to focus more of their efforts on continuous marketing and cross-merchandising of frozen pizza with other items like potato chips and soft drinks throughout the store, well into the hot summer months. And, as sales of frozen pizzas steadily increase, retailers and manufacturers are able to offer consumers lower prices for a better quality product. Some retailers have even complained about price wars, which occurred last winter in the Milwaukee market, saying that price-cutting threatens to ruin the category.
"In general, the whole frozen pizza category is getting better, with different types of pizzas now available, and the quality has definitely improved from cheap, tasteless pizzas to self-rising crusts that taste like they came from a pizza parlor," said Kevin Dukette, frozen and dairy manager of Highland Park Markets, Glastonbury, Conn. "The prices are getting better, too. For around $4.99 or $5.99, consumers can eat a decent frozen pizza instead of ordering or dining out," Dukette added.
"This category used to sell better in the colder months, but as the choices and quality become better and better, frozen pizzas are now selling consistently all year."
"Ingles' frozen pizza sales have been on the rise for some time now; this summer is no exception," said Tom Outlaw, vice president of grocery sales for Ingles Markets, the supermarket chain based in Asheville, N.C.
"The quality and variety of pizza has improved tremendously and is largely responsible for this sales increase," he said.
A recent report from Information Resources, Inc., the Chicago-based consumer packaged goods research company, reveals that overall frozen food sales were up 3.7% and frozen food units increased 0.3% for the 12 weeks ended March 26, compared with the same time period in 1999. More specifically, this same report showed that frozen pizza dollars rose 7.2% and units were up 6.4% this year compared to 1999 figures -- a numerical indication that frozen pizza is a rising category.
Although sales in the frozen pizza category are becoming more and more consistent throughout the year, weather still plays a vital role in how much of an interest consumers show during spring and summer.
"This category can really rise and fall based on the weather and people will probably always tend to eat more frozen pizza in the cooler months -- this year is proof of that," said Ross Nixon, vice president of merchandising for Dahl's Food Markets in Des Moines, Iowa. "Usually, our cooler spring weather lasts through April and into May, but this year it's been so warm and dry that frozen pizza sales are pretty flat for this time of the year. But, overall, there is a greater increase in frozen pizza purchases throughout the year because of high-tier gourmet pizzas and self-rising crusts and people are starting to buy them during the summers too."
According to the Frozen Food Council of North Carolina, frozen pizzas still sell at a faster rate during the winter, but the introduction of new products with self-rising crusts and higher-quality toppings is motivating consumers to purchase from this category during traditionally slow seasons like summer.
"Even though January is still the highest consumption month for the frozen pizza category, sales have really leveled out throughout the entire year since consumer eating habits are changing and gourmet and self-rising crust brands like Freschetta and DiGiorno keep pushing the category along," said Joe D'Alberto, president of the Charlotte-based council.
"And, in the past, frozen pizza wasn't promoted until late in the summer, but back-to-school promotions including pizza are now being seen as early as late July."
One supermarket chain that has recently noticed an increase in frozen pizza sales is Sterk's Super Foods, Hammond, Ind. Despite an exceptionally warm spell in the past few months, Sterk's reports a noteworthy jump in consumer demand for pizza at this time.
Another viable variation in this category has been attributed to an elimination of distribution centers during certain deliveries, allowing manufacturers to transport their frozen goods directly to retailers. This change enables retailers to not only keep their freezer cases fully stocked, but also cuts some of the costs of having a middleman involved in delivery.
"Historically, sales have always dropped a little bit during the summer months, but we are selling more frozen pizzas now than ever before and because of great sales, allocation for space in this area is consistently increasing.
"To increase sales even more, we are doing a lot of cross-merchandising -- in-store mostly -- with different soft drinks," said Kevin Copper, store buyer for Sterk's Super Foods. "Direct store delivery has also gotten better and is really growing and making this product category more manageable, lowering costs for the retailer."
"Frozen pizza has really taken off in the past few years with rising crust pizzas and an overall improvement in quality," said Nevin Montgomery, president of the National Frozen Food Association in Harrisburg, Pa. "Consumers are taking advantage of the convenience of a frozen meal solution that can be kept in the freezer and cooked at any time," he added. "We're seeing frozen pizzas starting to replace some home deliveries and the times people go out for a meal.
"Frozen pizza manufacturers have responded to the challenge of creating a quality meal solution at a great price and consumers are reacting by purchasing frozen pizza throughout the year now, instead of just during the winter months," said Montgomery.
Because they don't want their ovens at 400 degrees when the weather is hot, many consumers look to microwavable frozen pizza products during the summer months. As a result, manufacturers choose to launch new items at this time.
Retailers have also begun to indulge in this newfound consumer demand for microwavable pizza products during the summer, increasing spending on promotions to drive traffic to their stores. And, as this category lends itself naturally to meal solutions, many are cross-promoting these microwavable frozen pizzas with beverages, side dishes and even desserts.
"We promote a lot more of the microwavable frozen pizza items during the summer because consumers are out and about more and they're looking for quick, easy foods, but also because in the summer months, they aren't as apt to turn on their ovens and make their houses even hotter," said Brian Barrett, frozen and dairy manager for Leeker's Family Foods, Wichita, Kan.
"Retailers in general are spending more money in the summer months now to promote frozen pizza products, especially microwave pizza items. We do a lot of promotion during the summer for frozen pizza as a meal solution and often promote it in combination with soft drinks, side dishes and desserts to make the item more of a complete meal."