PIZZA HUT BITES BACK; STUFFED CRUST SIZZLES; LITTLE CAESARS' DELIVERY HITS BUMPS

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Little Caesars Pizza delivery was supposed to be the defining event of the summer pizza wars, but a new product from PepsiCo's Pizza Hut is casting a much larger shadow.

Backed by a $45 million, star-studded campaign from BBDO Worldwide, New York, Stuffed Crust pizza boosted comparable store second-quarter sales 14% compared to the same period a year ago, reversing several quarters of same-store sales declines.

"Pizza Hut has been hammering Stuffed Crust pretty hard-that's hurt us the most," said Jim Pond, account supervisor at Fogarty Klein & Partners, Houston, which handles 45 Domino's Pizza markets in 11 states.

What hasn't posed so much of a threat is Little Caesars delivery. The marketer has hit some operational snags-namely, hiring delivery drivers-that may be undermining the very clever introductory TV spot from Cliff Freeman & Partners, New York.

"Hiring drivers has been a challenge, but I think our restaurant managers are working hard to get the word out," said a Little Caesars spokesman.

The chain has hired roughly 75% of the drivers needed.

Pizza Hut has the largest slice of the $18.6 billion quick-service pizza market, with a 26.3% share. Domino's and Little Caesars hold 11.3% and 10.2%, respectively.

As Pizza Hut experiences record sales this summer, same-store sales at Domino's were up 5% in June. Still, both Domino's and Pizza Hut are taking pre-emptive measures.

Soon after Little Caesars announced its delivery plans, Pizza Hut and Domino's rushed to air in many markets with TV spots reminding customers of their free delivery service. Little Caesars' delivery menu charges $1 to $2 more for most items.

"We've been delivering pizza for free for 30 years," says a Domino's spot from Grey Advertising.

"The only way to get Pizza Hut quality is to order Pizza Hut pizza, and the only way we deliver it is free," says an almost identical ad from BBDO.

Entering the competitive summer months, Domino's stood the most to lose from Little Caesars' delivery rollout; delivery represents a whopping 90% of Domino's $2 billion in U.S. sales.

But as delivery becomes a less distinctive positioning for Domino's, the chain is moving to build carryout sales, focus ads more closely on food quality, and increase sports marketing efforts under new VP-Marketing and Product Development Cheryl Bachelder.

A promotion beginning this week touts two of the chain's newer products-deep dish pizza and buffalo wings-at a reduced price. Domino's will continue to use the "Gotta be Domino's" tagline through yearend.

Looking to build carryout sales to about 20% of its business, Domino's is seeking more prominent restaurant locations.

"For a long time, many customers have never seen the store they've ordered from. Their impression of Domino's has been the driver at the door and the pizza in the box," said a Domino's spokesman.

To further expand its brand identity, Domino's last week inked a $4 million deal to sponsor NBA coverage on Turner Network Television.

Domino's this fall continues its sponsorship of the NFL halftime show on NBC. The chain secured the four-year, $40 million deal last year.

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