As the weather outside heats up, pizza makers are hoping consumers will seek the cool comfort of the frozen food aisle. In an effort to attract interest to the category, recent innovations have focused on several initiatives, including natural product line extensions and delivering restaurant-quality pizza.

Data from Information Resources, Inc. for the 52 weeks ended May 17 show that while several newer products are gaining traction in the marketplace, the overall category is off the pace from a year ago. Unit sales of 1,008,703,000 in the period ended May 17 were down 2.5% from the same period a year earlier. Dollar sales, meanwhile, climbed 4.8%. Likely factors included price increases and a sharp uptick in private sales growth.

The shift to higher-priced, specialty pizzas has come as consumers are thought to have moved away from eating out, toward more eating at home. In response, pizza makers appear to be answering with fewer product introductions, but more specific in their target audience.

Since reaching a high of 245 in 2007, the number of new frozen pizza products launched in the United States has slowed, according to Mintel International Group Ltd. In 2008, the number fell to 213, and through the first half of 2009 only 94 new frozen pizza products have hit the market, putting the segment on pace for less than 200 new items, its lowest total since 191 in 2006.

Demand for specialty pizzas is evident in sales figures for the nation’s largest frozen pizza maker, Kraft Foods Inc. The Northfield, Ill.-based company maintains nearly a 40% share of the category, according to I.R.I., and has experienced good growth in its premium DiGiorno brand and super-premium California Pizza Kitchen brand.

"Convenience is also still very much on trend — and frozen pizza has always provided that," said Tim Cofer, president of Kraft Pizza Co. "But consumers aren’t willing to compromise on taste, so if you offer them a great tasting, premium pizza like DiGiorno, then you can win them over to the frozen section of the supermarket."

Mr. Cofer also noted Kraft is seeing interest in meals for one. He said the company continues to gain traction in the single-serve category through the launch of its DiGiorno Flatbread Melts and California Pizza Kitchen Flatbread Melts.

Meanwhile, Schwan Food Co., Marshall, Minn., the No. 2 ranked frozen pizza maker, is counting on Freschetta PizzAmore to reinvigorate sales that have dropped sharply over the past year. While Freschetta dollar and unit sales have fallen 17% and 25%, respectively, during the past 52 weeks, according to I.R.I., unit sales for the Freschetta PizzAmore brand climbed 70%. Described by the company as "the future of frozen pizza," the product features an exclusive Freschbake tray that radiates heat to cook the entire crust. In addition, the pizza, which was launched in the fall of 2007, is pre-sliced, which differentiates it from other products in the category.

A major player in the grain-based foods industry, Battle Creek, Mich.-based Kellogg Co. continues to work its way into the frozen pizza mix through the Kashi brand. Launched in 2007 as an all-natural option, the Kashi frozen pizza brand earlier this year introduced two new all-natural frozen pizzas: Mexicali Black Bean Thin Crust and Sicilian Veggie, its first cheese-less and vegan offering.

This summer, Kashi is launching a third new flavor, All-Natural Caribbean Carnival Frozen Pizza.

"The new flavors will blend a fusion of tropical flavors with Kashi’s signature Seven Whole Grain and Sesame and flax seed crust," Kashi said. "Distinctive ingredients include a guava-infused jerk sauce, mozzarella cheese, plantains, kale, roasted red onions, tomatoes and diced mangoes."

Kashi’s focus on all-natural is in line with a growing trend in the category to focus on the claim. According to Mintel, the use of the term "all-natural" appeared on 35, or 20%, of the 174 new frozen pizza products launched in the United States during the past 12 months (June 2008 – June 2009). In comparison, the second-most used claim was "no additives/preservatives," with 30, followed by "premium" with 21 and "trans fat (low/no/reduced)" with 20.

Newman’s Own is banking on the all-natural phenomenon as well. The Westport, Conn.-based company in October entered the premium segment with Newman’s Own Thin and Crispy frozen pizza, a line that among other things features a crust made with flaxseed. With a little more than seven months under its belt, the brand has generated nearly $8.3 million in sales, according to I.R.I. The brand is expected to go national by 2010, the company said.

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