Cerberus Capital Management LP’s $9 billion deal to merge Safeway Inc. with Albertsons is a bet that a larger supermarket chain can better fend off an attack on the grocery business by big-box stores and online retailers.

Safeway, the No. 2 grocery-store operator in the U.S., agreed yesterday to be acquired by Cerberus’s Albertsons for about $40 a share. The deal will unite two chains with locations across the country -- especially in the West -- and narrow Kroger Co.’s lead as the nation’s top supermarket company.

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