Hall of Fame Profile: Cheryl Williams

Bill Schober
Editor Emeritus
Bill Schober profile picture

Cheryl Williams

Title: Chief Information Officer, Wakefern Food Corp.

Education: Bachelor of Science, Computer Science, Cook College at Rutgers University

Wakefern Career Path: (1996) Manager of Retail Systems; (1997-2001) Director of Information System Services; Director of Applications Development; (2001-2012) VP of Marketing; (2012-2016) VP of Digital Commerce and Innovation; (2016-present) Chief Information Officer (CIO). Williams also serves on Wakefern’s executive staff.

Community/Industry Activity: Network of Executive Women; past Co-Chair of the New York Metro Steering Committee; Board of Directors for Choose New Jersey.

While there’s room for debate as to the reasons why, there’s little doubt that women are, in fact, underrepresented in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) fields. And Progressive Grocer magazine’s commendable efforts to promote “Top Women in Grocery” notwithstanding, the same can be said for the retail food industry. As Cheryl Williams, chief information officer at Wakefern Food Corp. and a Path to Purchase Institute/Shopper Marketing Hall of Fame inductee for 2017, will tell you, “Being in technology and in the grocery industry – well, you know I’m used to being the only woman in the room.”

But judging from Kantar Retail’s latest PoweRanking, many people are very lucky she was there at all. While Kantar ranks Wakefern as the nation’s 29th largest retailer by sales, the industry execs whose opinions drive the PoweRanking raised Wakefern all the way up to No. 9 for its use of digital platforms. Clearly, when it comes to tech, this member-owned cooperative is punching well above its weight class.

Since joining the company in 1996 as manager of retail systems, Williams has been a constant in the company’s climb to technology excellence. While holding various titles such as director of applications development; VP, marketing; VP, digital commerce and innovation; and now CIO, she has overseen a host of advances including the “ShopRite from Home” e-commerce platform, mobile apps, digital couponing and the “Price Plus Insights” data sharing program, among many others.

In March, Williams – along with Chris Witte, VP, shopper & category development, Tyson Foods; and Herbert Smith, VP, off-premise customer development & category management, E. & J. Gallo Winery – was honored at the Institute’s 24th annual induction ceremony, held in conjunction with the Shopper Marketing Effie Celebration in New York. Williams was interviewed in late February at Wakefern’s headquarters by the Institute’s Bill Schober.

Tell us about your background.

Williams: I was born in New Brunswick … grew up in East Brunswick … got married and moved to North Brunswick. I now live in South Brunswick, so there are no Brunswicks left! I’m a Central Jersey girl through and through.

What did your parents do?

Williams: Both were in technology. My dad was a vice president for a couple of companies in technology, and my mom worked her way up through data processing. She started as a key punch operator and eventually worked for Rutgers University, where she was responsible for scheduling in the computer room.

Were you on a computer as a kid too?

Williams: I started young in computers, although back then, remember, computers didn’t exist really. In high school, I was in an advanced math program so I took computer programming as an elective. We had a little PDP-11 [minicomputer] in a closet that was always short-circuiting because the air conditioner that kept it cold dripped on it. We had a couple of teletype machines – no punch cards – teletype. Then I took computer science at Rutgers.

When you look at photos of those old computer clubs, you see a lot of tech geeks, but not many are female. What was it like?

Williams: Oh, I was very unusual. There were virtually no women in technology, especially at Rutgers, because computer science was part of their very intensive math program. I took five semesters of calculus, for example. And this wasn’t some basic business computer class; it was all hexadecimal math and that kind of stuff. And then, being in technology and in the grocery industry – well, you know I’m used to being the only woman in the room.

Did your parents push you?

Williams: No, I just had this passion for technology. I was always interested in what my dad used to bring home. He worked for Westinghouse and went to school with IBM to learn their programming language and operating system. He’d bring home his books and technology like removable disks, and I was just fascinated. I’m not talented when it comes to things like music, painting or dancing, but I do believe computers are a way to express your creativity.

How did retail come into the picture?

Williams: When I was 16 I got a job at Macy’s in the boy’s department, and worked a couple days a week in high school and college. I worked, as a matter of fact, until I got married because I didn’t want to give up my 20% discount. I got an internship in Revlon’s technology department as a programmer and – I don’t know how I lucked into this – ended up as part of their advanced manufacturing systems group. So, that was great experience for me. I graduated and interviewed with Pathmark, and their enthusiasm was unbelievable. The minute I started there I fell in love with the 24/7 nature of grocery. What I loved about it was the fact that you can talk to your neighbors and just about anybody about the grocery business: “Hey, we just implemented this new system … what do you think? What would make your grocery shopping trip easier?” That’s what hooked me. But I moved on from Pathmark when the company decided to outsource their technology to IBM. I served as their liaison to IBM.

How long were you with Pathmark?

Williams: Twelve years. Listen, if Pathmark had not outsourced then I would have stayed there. IBM is one of my favorite vendors, but that organization was just a little too large for me.

So, in 1996 you joined Wakefern as manager-retail systems.

Williams: And I was then promoted to director of applications development, and went from having responsibility for retail systems to having responsibility for all our applications including finance, payroll, logistics and retail. Our current president, Joe Sheridan, was at the time executive VP, and he’s always pushed us to be ahead of the curve. He even had a vision of shopper marketing before that term existed. Joe believed that instead of pushing product from the brand forward, we should look at the consumer and focus on the consumer back. He tapped me to start a new division within Wakefern as VP of marketing. We had a classic advertising/merchandising function but our marketing was really consumer-specific.

Joe formed a multi-division task force called “the marketing oversight committee” and assigned us, along with our onsite partners from the major CPG companies, to develop this future of consumer-specific marketing. It wasn’t yet called shopper marketing back in those days. I was still in technology when this all was going on. So we built the first iteration of our data warehouse and then started working on the website. When Joe created the new marketing department, he picked me because of my analytical background.

This doesn’t sound like a conventional marketing department.

Williams: Everybody else was doing classic market research, but we were looking at data and finding trends. When you do market research, it’s what the consumer told you or what you thought, and it’s not quick enough. When you look at data you see things changing quicker. So, we built this whole marketing capacity, which ultimately became shopper marketing. We had vendor partners onsite from pretty much every major CPG that would spend anywhere from 12 to 18 months working alongside us. They would bring their insights to us but they also had access to our data as well.

Given all that calculus and hexadecimal notation coursework in college, did you ever sneak in a class on marketing?

Williams: No, I’ve never taken one. I’d been the VP, marketing, for just a couple of weeks when I was told that we were to go to Tyson headquarters and that I was to make the presentation. Honestly, I had no idea what I’d be doing. But one of the things our team figured out quickly was that we needed to develop our own marketing programs against our consumer segments. We didn’t want to keep running around to different manufacturers for their programming and trying to fit into them. So we figured out the analytics and our consumer segments, and came to understand what their baskets looked like.

We could then do deep dives and show how brands, like Tyson, performed in certain consumer segments versus others. It was very early shopper marketing. We started with Hispanic marketing and ended up developing our own series of shopper marketing programs: natural/organic, African American, baby, kids, kosher. Eventually, they became yearlong annual programs that had a variety of levels with different activations against them.

That’s a lot of change for any company to manage. And with Wakefern being a retailer-owned cooperative, was it even more complicated?

Williams: Fifty members own Wakefern Foods, so ultimately, I work for all of them. And it really helps because they’re all operators who are out in their stores, and they bring a realism to what we’re doing that helps us be ahead of the curve. When I worked for Pathmark, sometimes you didn’t know where to go to get approvals. What I like about Wakefern is that the members volunteer their time to be on committees – store operations, retail technology, officers meetings, finance meetings, capital projects – and you always know where you need to go.

Does that make things easier?

Williams: Yes, but here you’re also held to a different standard and a level of diligence with the members, so you really have to do your homework. But yes, it helps you move faster. When something works, they are supportive and vocal about it, and sometimes even help convince other members who may be hesitant.

New Jersey is about as far from Silicon Valley as you can get. Is there a technology talent pool you draw upon?

Williams: Well, we are close to Silicon Alley, which is down in the lower Manhattan area and is an offshoot of Silicon Valley. We are adding an innovation role to our department with the sole responsibility being how should Wakefern approach innovation and whether, for example, we should be participating with some of these accelerators.

What did the development of “ShopRite from Home” entail?

Williams: I’ve been involved since the very early infancy of online shopping. At Pathmark, I worked on home shopping, but it was quite different in those days before the commercialization of the internet. We’d actually create little CDs that we’d distribute to customers. Here’s how it worked: In Manahawkin, New Jersey, there are a lot of marinas and fishing boats that go out for extended periods of time. So at the Manahawkin Pathmark, we used to let commercial fishermen order their groceries online through a dial-up connection and we’d bring them to their fishing boats. But it wasn’t anything like it is today. When I came to Wakefern, we started a home shopping initiative with a company named “MyButler” out of Canada, and quite frankly, it was a failure. But you learn. Then around 2002, we launched the first iteration of what’s now “ShopRite from Home” in partnership with MyWebGrocer. It was out of our Oakland, New Jersey, store.

Did success come faster than you expected?

Williams: I don’t know what I expected. Our MyButler experience was such a miserable failure that I really wasn’t sure. But the second time around we did things a little differently. For example, instead of doing direct mail pieces, we did what looked like wedding invitations in gold lettering, with an RSVP that entitled you to a free bouquet of flowers. So, we approached it from a different perspective. It wasn’t just, “Hey! You can order your groceries here.” It felt more like a personalized shopping service.

In 2004, Wakefern then started following up with a mobile app, and around 2010, you began rolling out digital coupons. Taken for granted nowadays, but that must have been challenging.

Williams: People don’t remember that mobile adoption was very slow at first; now, it’s like, you can’t think of anyone who doesn’t have a mobile app. The same thing happened with digital coupons. When we started, our team would literally count the people and say, “Five redeemed our digital coupon!” And we’d all cheer! And now, when we do our Big Brand Bash event – well, if I were to tell you the numbers, you’d be blown away. The adoption rate and digital downloads and redemptions are just off the charts.

How does “Price Plus Insights” fit in?

Williams: We introduced “Price Plus Insights” in 2010 to expose our shopper data to the manufacturers that had both brick-and-mortar and digital information. I believe it was the first in the industry where we could show a company what products were selling online better than in-store, for example.

Has the move to e-commerce and the digital platform changed classic trade relationships?

Williams: It’s evolved to now when you sit down at the table and you have those dialogues about where the money is going to go, it’s about both in-store and online. One of the things that we really focus on heavily is that we want to make sure that our consumers online have the same experience as in the store. We’re talking about the same price online and in-store, same promotion online and in-store, same variety online and in-store. People often come in here and tell us, “You could be so much more efficient if you just focused on the 1,200 or so items people buy online.” Well yeah, sure, but that’s not who we are. We could be “more efficient” in-store too if we only had five varieties of yogurt instead of 200.

You only have to walk a few ShopRite stores to be impressed by your product variety.

Williams: Every store has roughly 35,000-40,000 SKUs, but each individual assortment is different along with unique pricing and promotions. It’s a big data effort. I don’t know how we did any of this without technology.

You stress the importance of “being who we are” a lot. What does that mean, exactly?

Williams: We’re known for being difficult New Yorkers sometimes, but what the heck – it’s also well known that if we say we’re going to do something, we do it and we execute. If we commit to moving 29 truckloads of something, we move 29 truckloads. I also think that CPG manufacturers know that when they have new opportunities, we’re always willing to try different and unique things, and they come to us first.

Is e-commerce a defensive mechanism?

Williams: At Wakefern we always approached it as an opportunity – a tool in our toolbox. It’s certainly a way to attract the next generation of Millennial shoppers.

It seems that online sales can also be a way for traditional supermarkets to win back sales from club stores. Is that part of the thinking?

Williams: Absolutely. Obviously from a demographic perspective, a lot of families with kids are now using “ShopRite from Home” and they need larger pack sizes – Gatorade, paper towels, toilet tissue, whatever. But the other aspect is that they’re no longer constrained by the cart. Let’s face it: In the brick-and-mortar setting, you can buy only what you can fit in your cart and ultimately, are willing to carry. Those constraints go away with “ShopRite from Home.”

What do brands not understand about what Wakefern is doing?

Williams: There are a few that still want to do things because it’s “the way we’ve always done it.” They need to listen to retailers because we’re much closer to consumers and understand their needs. So some brands need to be more … maybe the word is “entrepreneurial.” Of course, some brands embrace change. When we sit them down with “Price Plus Insights” and show them their top 10 SKUs online and the top 10 in-store, and where the differences are, they embrace it because they can switch their marketing dollars to the channel that makes more sense.

Speaking of change, we noticed you are out in front with some IoT innovations like smart refrigerators.

Williams: Oh, that’s the Samsung Fridge. It came to us through MasterCard labs. It was super simple architecturally and from an API standpoint, and didn’t tie up resources.

Do you have one in your house?

Williams: They wanted to give me one but I said no – it doesn’t match my kitchen! [Laughs.] Actually, the first iteration they wanted to give me was really just a giant screen, like an iPad Pro, duct-taped to the front of a refrigerator. And I was like, “Not in my house.” But they are selling commercially now.

Do you see yourselves as innovators?

Williams: People do think about us first and will give us a ring and say, “Hey, you want to try it?” A lot of it is cool factor.

One concern about grocery e-commerce is that shoppers create a list and stick rigidly to it. Do you worry about them not being exposed to new and related items?

Williams: We’re working on the next evolution of our website and you’ll see that there’s more “suggestive selling” and personalization. Lists online started out as very utilitarian – you just built it with basics. There are things that we can do today to influence it, and I think that’ll continue to evolve.

What advice would you give anybody following in your footsteps?

Williams: The advice I give people is work hard and don’t be dissuaded by people who’ll tell you you can’t do it. Whether it’s “you’re a woman – you shouldn’t be here” or “don’t try that – it won’t work.” A lot of people will try to take you off course. So you must believe, be passionate, and be flexible because things change dynamically. Go down your path and do what you want to do.