LONDON -- PizzaExpress announced its same-store sales dropped 9.4 percent in the first quarter of 2003, which ended April 6.

The decline follows a 5.1 percent drop reported for the previous quarter.

According to a release, the company attributed the sales slide to intense competition in the overall casual-service segment, as well as economic and political concerns.

The 311-store chain is at the center of a bidding war between two private-equity investment groups. Earlier this month, PizzaExpress' board accepted a £277.8 million (U.S. $436 million) takeover offer from a consortium made up of Capricorn Ventures (owner of 400 Nando's chicken restaurants) and private equity partner TDR.

The move nullified PizzaExpress' previous acceptance of a £263 million (U.S. $412.2 million) bid from the Venice Bidder consortium, led by Luke Johnson, the chain's former co-owner. The latter group's bid was backed ABN Amro.

After PizzaExpress accepted Capricorn's bid, Johnson said Venice would consider topping it. However, a counter offer has yet to be made, and in light of the announced sales declines, High Street analysts are wondering whether Venice will remain interested in the purchase.

At midday on April 16, shares of PizzaExpress traded at 387-1/4 pence (U.S. $6.08) on the FTSE.

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