CAMP HILL, Pa. — The way Ted Williams sees it, an element of surprise can be a wonderful thing.
As vice president of general merchandise and seasonal at Rite Aid Corp., Williams strives daily with his category management team to meet customers’ shopping needs and — whenever possible — to provide a touch of the unexpected that can turn a trip to the store into something special. For his leadership role, Williams has been named by MMR as one of Six Executives Who Made a Difference in 2017.
“When you look at the overall contribution,” he says of the seasonal and GM categories, “it helps create excitement and surprise in the store. Customers may or may not expect to find some of the things that we’re carrying or doing. It becomes that bridge between greeting cards, seasonal candy and seasonal general merchandise. All of that ties together for a convenient shopping trip.”
That philosophy dovetails with Rite Aid’s successful Wellness format, which offers an expanded selection of health- and wellness-oriented products and now accounts for more than half of the retailer’s store locations. While at first glance GM and seasonal’s place in a “wellness” concept might not be obvious, Williams notes that it depends on how broadly you define well-being.
“For example, you can look at wellness as brightening someone’s day or making it easier for the customer. Think about someone finding the perfect birthday card for you, sending it to you and making you smile. So greeting cards have an impact on wellness with the customer,” he explains. “And with seasonal, when you think about surprise or delight, if customers haven’t seen something before or find something unexpected, that can make them smile and ties nicely into wellness.”
Rite Aid’s Wellness concept, in fact, emerged not long after Williams joined the company. He came to the drug chain in October 2008 working as a consultant for several months before joining the company officially in January 2009.
“I served as a business consultant, which was a great way to get introduced to the company and understand the Rite Aid culture,” Williams says.
He came to Rite Aid from Pathmark Stores Inc., where most recently he served as vice president of nonfoods and pharmacy. He joined Pathmark in 2005 as director of nonfoods sales and merchandising. Prior to that, he was a divisional merchandise manager at CVS Pharmacy.
To make Rite Aid’s GM and seasonal offerings stand out, Williams says that he and his team try to put themselves in the customers’ shoes.
“We continually ask ourselves, ‘How do customers shop this category? What do they expect to find within Rite Aid’s presentation of this category?’ We look for the best of the best and the items that make sense for the customers,” he says. “We can’t be all things to all people, and this is where you really have to be selective in what you’re offering the customer. We have to be that selection point for her.”
Product placement and presentation also reflect the ways that customers in a given store shop, according to Williams.
“We try to tie it together the way the consumer shops. When you look inside the store, we typically start with greeting cards and roll it into seasonal and then into candy. “We do all this through consumer research and leveraging our own [loyalty] card data to understand how the customer shops and the affinity categories she looks to purchase.”
A linchpin of Rite Aid’s merchandising philosophy, particularly since the advent of the Wellness format, has been that no two stores are the same, Williams points out. “Each store is different and is looked at as a little learning lab. What we do this week in one store will be different than what we do in a store a few weeks after that.”
Williams’ category management team for GM and seasonal includes five category managers and one import director, who report directly to him. Each category manager has an associate category manager, and the import director is assisted by a manager.
“I will tell you, it’s an honor to be recognized as one of six who made a difference. To me, my direct team, these six truly make a difference in my life. I have a fairly seasoned category management team. They are results-driven and customer-focused. They all desire to do a great job and deliver for the company,” Williams says. “And I think that desire makes it very easy for me to provide my guidance, my partnership, my coaching to help them be successful in their endeavors.”
Williams also couldn’t overstate the importance of close collaboration with supplier partners — especially given the huge variety of available products in the GM and seasonal area.
“It’s critical, being that my categories are fairly diverse. When you think about working with a major household chemical, laundry or paper company, it’s much like health and beauty care — being collaborative and trying to figure out how you can create differentiation when everyone else has the same product in the same type of shelf space,” he explains.
And imported products present their own set of issues, he adds. “It’s very different working collaboratively with imports. You’re really the one creating, driving, writing the specs and the design with a team overseas to create the item you want,” he says. “You need the skills to be able to manage both of those different processes.”
Williams says Rite Aid helps him and his team do their jobs better by fostering a collaborative spirit and a willingness to share new ideas, which he describes as a “partnership” between the company and its employees.
“Nobody is an island. We constantly bounce ideas off each other,” he says. “If someone has a good idea, they share it. And once an idea gets flushed out enough, we go and present it.”
That sense of cooperation shows in the results seen in stores, Williams notes. “The great thing about working at Rite Aid is the culture and the people, being able to come into work and knowing you can make a difference. And I think that’s true with my team as well. They come in every day and say, ‘How can we make things better?’ ”