SPRINGFIELD, Mass. - With its debut of Fresh Acres on Oct. 19, Big Y here entered the growing ranks of traditional grocery retailers that are branching out with fresh-organic formats to capture some of the spending going to the "super natural" chains - Whole Foods and Wild Oats.
With neither of the national super natural chains in the Springfield area yet, the timing appears right for Big Y to venture into the realm of healthy, good-for-you foods.
Gary Giblen, senior vice president and director of research, Brean Murray Carret & Co., New York, said Big Y's new concept is just another example of how Big Y is being both offensive and defensive in discouraging the entry of Whole Foods or Wild Oats into its market area. Big Y can establish a strong following with Fresh Acres before the super naturals come in, he said.
Fresh Acres is located in a plaza at 1941 Wilbraham Road in the Sixteen Acres neighborhood, surrounded by local colleges. The shopper base is young professionals.
While the 30,000-square-foot store definitely has elements of the two super natural chains, Fresh Acres distinguishes itself by emphasizing local products, which will change with the seasons. The small size of the store makes the shopping trip quick and convenient.
When SN visited the store on the weekend following the store's opening, Carla's Pasta from South Windsor, Conn., was being cooked and sampled in the store, as were imported cheeses from Italy. The store will merchandise fruits and vegetables from area farmers and specialty products from local suppliers. Among some products found in Fresh Acres are soaps from the New England Alpaca Farm in Hampden, Harmony sodas from Ludlow and pasta sauces from local Lido's restaurant. Local produce suppliers include Meadowbrook Farm in East Longmeadow, Plainville Farms in Hadley, Mountainview Orchards in Granby, Calabrese Farms in Southwick, Cecchi's in Feeding Hills and Happy Valley Organic co-op in Deerfield.
Shoppers enter the store through an open-air space, a new technology for Big Y where the entrance stays open year round, and proceed into a high-end produce market with flower arrangements. The produce shines under the high-intensity spotlights. A sign tells shoppers that Fresh Acres supplies fresh produce to restaurants and hotels. Baskets hang from the ceiling as a reminder to customers that Fresh Acres offers a gift service, located in the far corner of the market.
The same "feel good" sense shoppers get in the market is carried into the store where the focal point is a large octagon-shaped fresh food service area that combines deli, meats, seafood, stone-baked thin-crust pizza and meals-to-go. An open fire-grill pit adds drama at the busy serving counter. Overhead, beef is encased in a dry-age, glass-enclosed case. The store will sell some 40 different salads and side dishes daily.
"It's a place to have fun with food and savor the flavors of our region while at the same time, to enjoy the convenience of chef-prepared meals and an open-air farmers' market, Charles D'Amour, president and chief operating officer of Big Y, told the local press.
Store traffic patterns are broken up by uniquely designed aisles that are concave and curved. There is plenty of in-aisle merchandising with carts and displays of cheeses, pastries, specialty imported items and cooking equipment. One in-aisle product stacking was large canisters of Berio olive oil for $9.99. End-aisle caps feature themed-specialty items like jams and condiments. There are also aisles devoted to ethnic products - kosher, Italian, Mexican, Irish, Polish, Russian and Asian.
It's been reported that Fresh Acres stocks more than 500 gluten-free products, said to be the largest selection in New England. Its Full Circle natural and organic products are positioned on special concave shelving in a circle and highlighted by an overhead logo.
The store contains a bakery section, featuring goods from Diana's Bakery in Enfield, Conn.; general staples and a small health and beauty area were opposite the checkout.
There was no indication that Fresh Acres was owned by Big Y, except for a tiny Big Y Express Savings Club logo at the bottom of the pricing label. One customer said, "The last time I was here it was a Big Y and now look at it." Big Y was closed for two years prior to Fresh Acres' debut.
Shoppers seemed genuinely pleased with the overall shopping experience. One customer told SN she "loved it. It's very special with wood floors. They feature a lot of specialty and imported items, and, yes, it is pricey." However, the prices didn't seem to deter shoppers who were filling up their baskets and carts to get a taste of Fresh Acres.