Yum Brands executives didn’t discuss Pizza Hut’s Cheez-It pizza on the call and analysts wonder why

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Pizza Hut is “challenged” in the U.S., according to a number of analysts

Yum Brands Inc.’s Pizza Hut chain launched the Stuffed Cheez-It Pizza on September 17, but analysts note that executives made no mention of the item on the third-quarter earnings call.

“We were surprised no update was given on the company’s Cheez-it pizza, given the level of advertising around the product and its presence on the value platform,” analysts said.

Stifel rates Yum Brands stock hold with a $105 price target, down from $110.

Pizza Hut is undergoing a business transformation that includes an announcement in August that it would close about 500 locations in order to shift to a fast-casual delivery setup.

In the most recent quarter, Pizza Hut saw sales fall 2% in the U.S. , with same-store sales declining 3%.

The weak showing drove Yum  shares down nearly 6% in Wednesday trading. The stock was down 2.5% on Thursday.

“Coming off a solid second quarter, the Pizza Hut U.S. business decelerated in Q3, as changes to our value offerings helped franchisee margins, but had a negative impact on transactions,” said David Gibbs, chief financial officer, on the earnings call, according to a FactSet transcript.

Gibbs will move into the chief executive position effective Jan. 1, 2020.

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“In addition, our previously announced plans to accelerate the transition to a modern delivery asset base in the U.S., while restructuring and upgrading our franchisee base, also took a toll on performance,” he said. “We caution we could see a continuation of soft sales and unit contraction throughout 2020 in Pizza Hut U.S. business.”

Globally, Pizza Hut same-store sales were flat. Yum Brands YUM, -2.13%   other two chains, KFC and Taco Bell, experienced same-store sales growth of 3% and 4% respectively.

“The launch of a ‘Cheez-It’ style pizza is not a way to build an enduring brand, especially when being shelled by the day-in/day-out $5.99/$7.99 of the now larger Domino’s business,” analysts said. “As Domino’s U.S. business is $7 billion versus Pizza Hut’s at $6 billion, we view Pizza Hut’s loss as Domino’s gain and continue to prefer shares of Domino’s Pizza.”

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JP Morgan rates Domino’s Pizza Inc. DPZ, -0.44%   overweight and Yum Brands neutral. Analysts lowered the price target on Yum Brands to $109 from $116.

Another example of that competition is Papa John’s International Inc. PZZA, -0.53%   , which has seen its stock rally more than 47% in 2019 after declines and controversy stemming from the exit of the company’s founder John Schnatter following the use of a racial slur.

BTIG raised its price target on Papa John’s stock to $62 from $54 in a note published Tuesday. Analysts rate Papa John’s stock buy, noting the likelihood that the company will ramp up national advertising and capitalize on the popularity of chicken wings.

“We have seen both KFC and Pizza Hut begin promoting wings more aggressively in recent weeks to capture some of the sales growth being generated by the likes of Wingstop,” BTIG wrote.

The disruption caused by the revitalization plans means that Pizza Hut’s results in the U.S. will likely be “choppy” into the future, said KeyBanc Capital Markets.

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“Given the disruption, we believe Pizza Hut U.S. trends could remain volatile in an already challenged category that faces increased competition from large pizza players and non-pizza participation third-party aggregation,” wrote analysts led by Eric Gonazalez.

KeyBanc rates Yum stock sector weight.

Yum Brands shares are up 9.7% for the year to date while the S&P 500 index SPX, -0.55%   is up 20.8% for the period.