BAYOU VISTA, La. -- Cannata's Food World stood its ground here when Wal-Mart came to town. And, in the shadow of the retail giant, the home-grown company has thrived by showcasing what Wal-Mart doesn't have -- things like home-made gumbo, custom-cut roasts, locally grown tomatoes and a long-time presence in the community.The three-unit family-owned independent retailer, based in Houma, La., opened

BAYOU VISTA, La. -- Cannata's Food World stood its ground here when Wal-Mart came to town. And, in the shadow of the retail giant, the home-grown company has thrived by showcasing what Wal-Mart doesn't have -- things like home-made gumbo, custom-cut roasts, locally grown tomatoes and a long-time presence in the community.

The three-unit family-owned independent retailer, based in Houma, La., opened its first supermarket here in bayou country 60 years ago, and was succeeding right up until Bentonville, Ark.-based Wal-Mart constructed a superstore. After Wal-Mart opened down the road four years ago, the 40,000-square-foot store here saw its sales volume steadily siphoned off.

"If we hadn't done something, it would have just got worse. We definitely made the right decision." said Vincent Cannata, president of the company.

The easy choice would have been to close its doors and leave town, which is what some other retailers did. Instead, the company went against conventional wisdom and took a huge gamble: it closed the store and moved into smaller quarters just the other side of the Wal-Mart Super Store.

"Now, we're quite happy with sales," said Cannata. "They're up."

The new site -- a 29,000-square-foot former Delchamps store -- offers advantages like easier access from the highway, an updated refrigeration system, and other elements that make for better efficiency, Cannata said. It's also closer to a more densely populated part of town.

But the physical move was the least of it. Cannata's also moved into a new, strategic marketing position -- one that features differentiation with a capital "D."

Now, five months later, in a smaller store, both sales volume and foot traffic are up significantly over the same period a year ago. While he declined to be more specific, Cannata said sales are above projections and are driven by the store's fresh departments.

Several things figure into the success story, but the key is the new marketing position that takes the focus off price and, instead, stresses quality, value and tradition, he said. To support its new persona, the company is spotlighting its long-time strengths and its family heritage. That has included a name change from Cannata's Food World to Cannata's Family Market.

"Our strong points had always been our perishables, our quality, and our commitment to the community. We're just calling more attention to them now. We have always done our own meat-cutting in the store, for example. So now we've put in a sliding window so customers can see the butchers at work and can see sides of beef hanging in there," Cannata said, adding that they can also get their steaks and roasts cut to order.

All the Cannata's Family Markets are now featuring "Uncle Sam's" sausage, too, that's made in-store from a recipe that actually belonged to Cannata's Uncle Sam, who was a butcher. The retailer has made sausage from Sam Cannata's recipe for years, but never thought to call it "Uncle Sam's" or promote the recipe's origins.

At the new location here, the company also launched its first Cannata's Italian Market, adjacent to the deli department. It's devoted to fresh pastas, sauces, Italian meats and a big selection of imported cheeses. The deli-bakery department has been newly dubbed "Cannata's Kitchens," and that area is decked out with festive-looking, hanging pennants that say, "Meals to Go," "Sandwiches," and "Sliced Meats & Cheeses" and "Desserts."

The bakery is turning out hot French bread all day long and the produce department has been re-merchandised with a tight focus on in-season products that are locally grown. Cut-outs of the state of Louisiana and "Louisiana grown" banners designate them, and they're displayed in fixtures that have an "olden days" look. For example, huge, galvanized tubs are piled high with watermelons or potatoes, and carts that look like street peddler's carts show off peaches and plums or Creole tomatoes.

"We even have an old, feeding trough we use for displays. We picked that up somewhere around here," Cannata said.

Deciding to set itself apart from Wal-Mart is the spur that got Cannata's moving.

"We certainly couldn't compete on price, so the choice was to take an entirely different direction. We knew we needed more than a new coat of paint," Cannata said.

The new marketing punch comes from a whole repertoire of changes that include new merchandising techniques, radio ads that feature real people like Bozo the Butcher, and an increased level of service in the store. Much of the visual impact inside is supplied by sepia prints of old photos that date back to the first Cannata's supermarket which opened in 1939.

"We want customers to feel 'tradition' when they walk in the door," Cannata said.

Terry Roberts, president of The Design Associates/Merchandising By Design, a Pittsford, N.Y., store-planning and consulting company, helped to create a business plan and to decide how best to change the company's overall image.

"We knew we wanted to be a little different in a sea of 'same-old, same-old,' but we didn't know how we were going to do it. With her experience, Terry could see how our company would fit in the marketplace. And she's so good at drawing you out. For instance, she helped us figure out how to emphasize our meat and produce departments by first questioning us about why they've been important to us. Sometimes you're so close to something that you just get blinded.

"We put our heads together, too, on what the new name should be. You know some things are so overworked, like 'market fresh' and 'fresh market.' We finally decided that "family market" described best what we're all about. Our goal is to take care of families. We have families ourselves and we want to help other families," Cannata said.

Roberts said when she asked Cannata and his sister, Joni Blakeman, why their Italian sausage was such a big seller, they both answered, without hesitation, "It's because it's so good. It's Uncle Sam's recipe." And yet, Uncle Sam had never been mentioned in the company's ads or marketing materials -- not until the re-invented Cannata's Family Market made its debut.

The idea to have an Italian Market section, separate from the traditional deli, sprang from talking about the Cannata's Italian heritage, Roberts said.

Putting a focus on produce was a natural, she added, because Cannata and his father had always paid a lot of attention to that department. That's probably because the elder Cannata, Vincent Cannata Sr., entered the business world as a produce peddler. That was in 1936 at New Orleans' French Market, an open-air, farmer's market on the banks of the Mississippi.

"The Cannata's recognize the importance of produce in their new marketing strategy. They make sure they're buying the best of the best, and they rotate it properly. They're also focusing on particular products, not just throwing everything together as some small stores are apt to do," Roberts said.

Lighting, which is one of Roberts' areas of expertise, has been designed here to highlight particular displays. And the sepia photos, showing family members in the olden days selling produce, emphasize that the department is a hallmark.

But with all the fancying up, Cannata's Family Market has not forgotten that price does remain an issue, especially in a blue-collar area like Southwestern Louisiana. While it no longer uses price as a marketing tool as it had done in the past, the company needs to assure customers that its prices are not out of their range, Cannata said. For that reason, the first element a customer sees upon entering the store here is warehouse shelving painted fire-engine red.

"We needed a loud color to make sure customers notice," Cannata said, noting that warehouse shelving sends a "value" message.

He also said the warehouse shelving holds quite a few regional labels that Wal-Mart doesn't carry. Southern Hospitality syrup is one example. The layout of the store is designed so that just beyond the warehouse aisle, customers can quickly see the spotlighted fresh departments.

Cannata pointed out that in those departments, too, local tastes are taken into consideration.

"We have the gumbos and meat loaf and rice and gravy and rice and beans in the deli and we feature a lunch special. In the meat department, they cut a lot of bone-in roasts because people around here like to make a good gravy. They'll take a bone-in roast, throw in some bell peppers and cayenne, and let it cook for hours. The bone-in makes a better flavored gravy," Cannata said.

There is a deliberate juxtaposition of "down-home" and upscale here. For example, a huge sign on the outside front of the store points out that Cannata's carries Black Angus beef which is a cut above what Wal-Mart carries, Cannata said.

"People in this part of the country eat a lot of meat and we sell a lot of it," he said.

All the new marketing and visuals and the pumped up merchandising created an effective splash locally when the new Cannata's Family Market was unveiled last August.

"I always tell retailers that it's easier to get people's attention with a new identity or new marketing position than it is with just a remodel. A new coat of paint isn't very exciting, but if you change your name and go back to your roots and good, old family cooking, that's something to talk about," Roberts said.

Customer response to the re-invented Cannata's has been gratifying, according to Cannata.

"They keep saying they're glad we're here, that they like what we're doing. They've also said they're glad they don't have to go to Wal-Mart for everything," Cannata said.

Just about everything distinguishes the new Cannata's from Wal-Mart, from the size of the store and the look of the place, to the "down-home" items they make in Cannata's Kitchens, Cannata said. And if andouille gumbo and custom-cut, bone-in roasts aren't enough to make people take notice, they probably will this week.

On Jan. 6, a jazz band will parade through all the Cannata's Family Markets to kick off the Mardi Gras season and the king cake selling season -- which is very big for this retailer.

Cannata's sells "tens of thousands" of king cakes -- a pastry that marks the beginning of the Mardi Gras season -- between Christmas and the beginning of Lent, Cannata said. Cannata's makes the dough at a central facility and then bakes and finishes each cake at store level. Fixtures made to look like Mardi Gras floats hold towers of the cakes from now until Lent. It's definitely a destination product, Cannata said.

"Everybody around here loves Mardi Gras so much, they start asking for king cakes even before Christmas. It's the sweet of the season," Cannata said.

Cannata's has additional reason for celebration this week. In Houma, its largest store, at 70,000 square feet, will have a grand re-opening on Jan. 6. That store has been remodeled, also with the guidance of Terry Roberts, to carry out the company's new look and marketing plan.

"It's a larger version of what we've done here," Cannata said. He stressed that all the company's stores, including a new one set to open in the spring, will reflect the company's new identity.