West of Worcester, Big Y is an institution, an 80-year-old family-owned grocer with a name derived from the shape of a Chicopee intersection.
Now the Springfield-based chain is making a play for the eastern part of the state, where it’s mostly unknown, expanding its Greater Boston footprint fivefold this month.
That’s right: There’s another large chain in Eastern Massachusetts.
Big Y’s push is the result of a merger of the parent companies of Hannaford and Stop & Shop. Antitrust concerns meant that Hannaford was forced to sell eight of its stores in Eastern Massachusetts, and Big Y was the taker.
“It was a big bite of the apple that they just couldn’t resist, because there’s only so many ways to get your brand into Eastern Massachusetts,” said Kevin Griffin, a grocery analyst who authors the Griffin Report of Food Marketing.
The new Big Y stores are north and south of Boston, in communities such as Quincy, Milford, and Saugus, and boost the company’s total near the city to 10, up from two. The total number of stores is now up to 69, split between Massachusetts and Connecticut.
Big Y is known for its in-store bakeries and advertises that it sources a number of its products from Massachusetts companies. It also offers a popular in-store child-care service at eight of its locations — for free.
Charlie D’Amour, Big Y’s president and chief operating officer, said that taking over existing stores gives a supermarket chain in expansion mode some advantages.
For one, the stores’ very existence demonstrates that the market has room for them, with established competitors, track records, and customer bases.
Given that Big Y bought stores that were forced into a sale because of their proximity to Stop & Shop locations, the new Big Y markets will compete closely with the Quincy-based chain.
It’s a familiar strategy for Big Y. Over the years, the company, which counted $1.7 billion in revenue last year, has acquired other chain stores in bulk, including as the result of mergers between bigger businesses. That has helped it grow in the Berkshires and in Connecticut, D’Amour said. The bull rush into Eastern Massachusetts is just the latest opportunistic growth spurt.
While Big Y intends to eventually remodel the newly acquired stores, starting with two next year, consumers probably won’t notice a big change in the short term between Big Y and the Hannaford stores it’s replacing. The same people will be working the aisles; Big Y took on the 1,000-plus employees from the Hannaford stores.
Customers at the Quincy store last week said they saw no big difference in pricing from Hannaford.
“I’m sure there are places where it’s up, places where it’s down, and it kind of breaks even,” said Donna Fleming, a Quincy resident who has shopped at the location for about 25 years.
But D’Amour said the chain has its own points of distinction that he hopes consumers will eventually recognize — including the bakeries and locally sourced products.
The supermarkets also feature store-made cheese, he said, though not yet in any of the new locations.
And of course there’s the free child care for children 3 to 9, available to customers for up to two hours. That service is not yet available in any of the new locations, though the company says it might be at some point.
In replacing the Hannaford stores, Big Y will assume that company’s competition with other large regional chains. Depending on the location, Big Y could compete with Stop & Shop, West Bridgewater-based Shaw’s/Star Market, Wellesley-based Roche Bros., and Tewksbury-based Market Basket.
Eastern Massachusetts has also become a hotbed for national grocers like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s.
Big Y is unlikely to beat its competitors based on price alone, said Edgar Dworsky, founder of the website Consumer World. Dworsky, who combs through prices at various supermarkets, said he was not impressed by the prices he saw in advertisements for the new stores.
He also pointed to a report from Consumer Reports giving the company middling reviews for value, ranking it slightly below Hannaford and slightly above Stop & Shop and Shaw’s.
“Hannaford kind of had a reputation for lower prices, and for many consumers price is king,” Dworsky said.
Catie Chapman, the company’s store director in Quincy, said Big Y is managing prices in the new stores to keep them close to those at Hannaford, at least for the early part of the transition.
D’Amour shrugged off pricing concerns, saying the made-in-house and locally sourced products push some prices higher.
The company, he said, holds its own when competing with several of the same chains in other parts of the state.
“We think we understand the market pretty well,” he said.
Big Y, he said, is likely to consider further expansion in Eastern Massachusetts, eventually making a push into Boston.