(Jan. 27) A year ago, Supervalu Inc. announced it was launching W. Newell & Co., a distribution center dedicated solely to fresh produce. That 155,000-square foot facility, in Champaign, Ill., opened last summer.

And in early January, Supervalu, fresh from record third-quarter earnings, said it was opening its first organic-focused Sunflower Market store, with 50 more to follow.

Now, with the acquisition of Boise, Idaho-based Albertson’s Inc., Eden Prairie, Minn.-based Supervalu may get a chance to see those new enterprises flourish.

“They were about half and half wholesaler and retailer before, and that I think caused confusion in the marketplace. Certainly the transaction clarifies that issue quite a bit,” said Eric Larson, senior analyst with Minneapolis-based Piper Jaffray & Co.

The acquisition presents numbers that represent dramatic change for Supervalu. The company, for one thing, goes from No. 8 in the U.S. in sales among retail grocery chains, at about $16 billion, to No. 3, at about $44 billion. It also vaults Supervalu’s roster of stores from about 690 to more than 2,600.

Gary Gionnette, Supervalu’s vice president of produce and Newell’s chief executive officer, did not return telephone calls for comment.

Albertson’s had produce-buying branches in Nogales and Tolleson, Ariz.; Coachella, Irvine, Oxnard, Roseville, Salinas and Visalia, Calif.; Denver; Deerfield Beach and Plant City, Fla.; Portland, Ore.; and Philadelphia.

Supervalu did not get all of Albertson’s buying offices in its deal with the grocer. Supervalu’s buying-consortium partner, Cerberus Capital Management LP, got 655 stores and distribution centers in Albertson’s Dallas-Fort Worth, Florida, Northern California and Southwestern regions.

What it all means for Supervalu’s produce sales, Larson notes, is anybody’s guess.

“They’ve put in a brand new fully dedicated cooling facility in Illinois,” he said. “That concept is something that I think Jeff (Noddle, Supervalu’s chief executive officer) will take to all of their stores, assuming that this transaction goes.”

What the Albertson’s acquisition is sure to do, Larson said, is give Supervalu a legitimate shot at catching industry-leading Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the Bentonville, Ark.-based chain that overwhelmed traditional grocery store chains with its Supercenter format.

“I suspect that you’re going to see a lot of things,” he said. “With this transaction, clearly they’re going to be staring down the barrel of Wal-Mart a lot more than they did before.

Produce can be a key part of Supervalu’s strategy, Larson said.

“The way for them to differentiate stores and build loyal customers is to service their customer with product and product offerings and a shopping experience that’s different from Wal-Mart,” Larson said. “And I think one of the ways that people can differentiate is in produce.”

That’s where the Newell division and Supervalu’s head-first foray into organics can help, Larson said.

“I honestly believe, with the Newell division along with their new organic effort, they want to take their Nature’s Best organic food brand name into all their stores, including Albertson’s,” he said.