James Tenser

Principal, VSN Strategies
James (“Jamie”) Tenser is an analyst and consultant to the retail and consumer products industry. His firm, VSN Strategies , focuses on retail technology, merchandising, marketing, consumer behavior, Shopper Media, Category Management, service practices, and all-channel retailing.

He is Executive Director and founding member of the In-Store Implementation Network.

Tenser is considered an authority on retailing, brand marketing, and consumer trends, and is author of two books. He is quoted often in national and international media. He contributes to periodicals such as, Advertising Age, Progressive Grocer,, Supermarket News, and his blog,

Since founding VSN in 1998, he has helped a diverse range of clients with strategy and thought-leadership communications, including: American Express Co., Dial Corporation, Eastman Kodak, Del Monte Fresh Produce, Gourmet Award Foods, IBM Global Services, Cisco Systems, DemandTec, and many others.

Tenser earned his undergraduate degree from Cornell University. He studied Media Ecology at New York University and Consumer Behavior at the University of Arizona’s Terry J. Lundgren Center for Retailing.
  • Posted on: 11/21/2017

    The RetailWire Christmas Commercial Challenge: Big Lots vs. Kohl’s

    In this Joy competition, Big Lots wins based on its upbeat emotional content. The inter-cuts of what look like mobile phone video clips were a nice touch too.Kohl's concept is far more creative, but I really don't want to be reminded that holiday shopping is a battle that leaves me fundamentally disappointed with a handful of scrip.
  • Posted on: 11/21/2017

    Will Ocado’s robots help U.S. grocers solve their online delivery problems?

    Ocado is a fascinating study in online grocery tech, but it has put all its eggs in the centralized fulfillment and delivery basket. No click and collect here. Automating the picking process with a robotic "hive" follows naturally from that choice, but it's evidently capital intensive.We've seen a similar movie before -- when Webvan constructed a massive automated fulfillment center in the East Bay area across from San Francisco. Only this time the automation mechanism is robotics; last time it was computerized conveyor systems.Ocado's model has potential in densely populated markets, where delivery vans travel short distances and make multiple stops before returning empty over short distances. This could disqualify it from many U.S. markets, where distances and geographic obstacles like bridges may mean long, unprofitable drives home by empty vans. The investment required to build a robotic "hive" is a leap of faith about which many grocers should be wary. How may orders must be filled and delivered to earn enough incremental profits to pay off the mortgage?As a self-professed retail tech nerd, I love learning about Ocado's brave attempt and I'm rooting for them to deliver the economic model that proves my skepticism wrong.
  • Posted on: 11/20/2017

    How open are consumers to AI-driven shopping?

    Jason, you are so right about lack of rigor in "stated preference" research. Consumers are rarely in a position to answer accurately about their intent -- especially regarding a consumption method that is new or untried.Population experience with cognitive technologies is still very limited, and the privacy-personalization tradeoff remains unclear, even after 20 years of speculation and experimentation.But anxiety about personal privacy is real, and the risks are underscored many times a day for each of us -- whether in news stories about data breaches or in the online banner ads that seem to stalk us across the internet.I'd argue, however, that AI cannot and should not be invisible and behind the curtain. Rather, I'd advocate a principle of complete transparency, revealed not in the depths of "terms of use" statements, but reinforced in the user interface itself. Ideally, every application of AI must answer this question to qualify: "How does this innovation give customers more confidence and control?"
  • Posted on: 11/20/2017

    Who will be left standing after the next retail shakeout?

    This observation is spot on, as others in this thread have observed. While quite thought-provoking, and worthwhile, Mr. Peterson's 3-part taxonomy doesn't fulfill the MECE principle (Mutually Exclusive, Collectively Exhaustive). The concept of "Third Wave" is really a catch-all category that covers various aspects of the retail experience.But rhetorical issues aside, I appreciate the intent of this analysis. Retail innovators with clear positioning, who focus on a recognized customer need or preference, will always create opportunities to chip market share away from the retail giants who gravitate inevitably toward the "big middle."Price and any-channel convenience remain must-have competencies for retailers of all stripes. Assortment, store concept, positioning, customization, advice, and services are differentiators. Chain stores should do continuous navel-gazing within their departments to assess whether they can leverage or build a reputation around being "best-at" one or more of these dimensions.
  • Posted on: 11/15/2017

    The RetailWire Christmas Commercial Challenge: Macy’s vs. Nordstrom

    The Macy's ad continues what by now has become a holiday retailer tradition of producing sentimental mini-movies to mark the season. I agree with others here that its tone is sober, almost bleak. It's a sweet little gift to the audience, true, but I don't find it very motivational.The Nordstrom spot is about holiday cheer-i-ness. As a thank-you card from the associates, it succeeds somewhat, so I'd give it the edge.
  • Posted on: 11/15/2017

    Yes, retailers can also reward non-transactional behaviors

    While I too wish for a clearer argument here, I absolutely agree with the premise that rewards programs could set wider sights than just points-for-purchases.The issue is how. One possibility is to reward involvement: Say we offer one point per dollar spent on purchases and 10 points for each product review or customer question answered. We're likely to attract some "serial reviewers" with this schema, but the value calculation should become clear in short order. But this is involvement after the fact.Pre-purchase is a bit trickier to visualize, for me. Points for viewing product videos is one possibility, although some folks might try to hack this process by viewing everything, every day. It could get simpler than this -- a points bounty simply for logging on to the website or walking into the physical store with the app activated."Refer a friend" is another option I've seen used recently for meal kit subscriptions, with a cash credit as the reward. (I'm not sure how many folks will stay friends afterward, however.)In general, we should be skeptical of any point-earning process that adds a lot of complexity for shoppers. The objective, I think, is to reward loyalty, not test it.
  • Posted on: 11/13/2017

    Retailers need supply chain urgency – now

    You can't push a chain. But you can drag one forward with a firm grasp on the final link.This is why I'm often mystified by supply chain conversations that focus on how to push products through the distribution chain with greater efficiency. Where's the discussion about the pull? About the demand generated in stores and optimization of the final node?Herb is so right about this in his comment today. It's time to reverse the orientation away from pushing pallets toward pulling items. Store-level perpetual inventory and optimized replenishment should be fundamental disciplines in FMCG channels. Breakdowns in on-shelf availability not only cause lost sales, excess inventory investment and excess labor -- they also propagate inaccurate signals to distribution centers and up the line.Darn right retailers need greater supply chain urgency -- and soon. In your supply chain network, what do you have the most of? Stores! That's where this discipline must begin.
  • Posted on: 11/09/2017

    Are retailers caught in a content trap?

    Modern retail remains anchored in its superior ability to move and distribute goods. Digital tech has shifted focus toward information about goods and shoppers.It may seem puzzling that retailers are still struggling to cope with this content imperative after two decades of virtual retailing, but let's not underestimate how massive the challenge was to present product information in the first place. Creating and curating product images alone presented a giant learning curve. Suddenly, it seemed, retailers were thrust into the unfamiliar role of media producers.The interactive nature of newer digital media changed the channel and added a multiplier effect. Instead of originating the storylines, products, brands and merchants are now the subjects of stories created by others. Social media act as amplifiers. This mediascape is mostly outside the retailer's control, and its costs may or may not result in profitable sales.Unlike Prof. Anand, I would not equate "content" with "product." There are very important distinctions between "stuff" and "bytes about stuff." But his observations about the innumerable "spokes-people" who now shape the stories about retailers and brands are important.You might say that the current media ecology has turned the mass market paradigm on its heel. It's the retailer that now faces a power deficit.
  • Posted on: 11/07/2017

    Amazon scales back Fresh deliveries

    Delivering on the promise is hard. Maybe AmazonFresh has learned that technology and scale can't overcome certain realities that in this instance are quite literally "on the ground." The hard lessons of Webvan echo in this context: superior order-taking and fulfillment are poor antidotes for low-density delivery routes, geographical obstacles and long return trips by empty vans.In a nutshell, this is why click-and-collect makes better practical sense for the grocery category in most communities. Walmart and Kroger clearly understand this already. Amazon seems to get that Whole Foods provides an instant network of branded pickup locations. Considerable operational refinements will be needed to make this work, but Big A can afford to experiment.
  • Posted on: 11/02/2017

    Gillette’s odd promo delivers some very weird results

    Gillette's 18th birthday promo is reminiscent of the "Hey, you're having a baby" headline that appeared on the cover of the New York Times Magazine in March 2012.Based on a book by author Charles Duhigg, called "The Power of Habit," the article focused on a promotion by Target stores, which used data mining to infer when some of its customers were expecting. For a few families, offers for baby products were a disconcerting surprise.I remember when my stepson received a free razor in the mail about a decade ago. As a marketer, I found it more amusing than creepy. But this type of life stage promotion should be implemented with care, as the baby promotion proved.One further thought relates to Gillette's recent competitive response to shaving subscription services like Dollar Shave Club. Since some personal grooming habits can be enduring, putting a razor handle in the hands of a young person at a pivotal moment may be more important than ever.
  • Posted on: 10/31/2017

    Corona owner is getting into the legal pot business

    Soon as they figger out a way to tax it, the folks in Washington will probably legalize it. While the momentum is building, I suspect forces in the Federal government will likely insist on years of health studies before changing the law. Anything inhaled is automatically suspect, for good reason. This will favor big pharma and consumer goods companies, of course, because they have the capital needed to fund the research. Artisanal producers will be left behind in the smoke.Fascinating that a large brewing company like Constellation brands would make this kind of speculative investment, just from a product development perspective. Did you know that hops - Humulusthe plant most commonly used to add the bitter flavor to beer - and Cannabis are actually closely related plants in the family Cannabaceae? Imagine a bottle of beer "flavored" with weed. How popular would that product be?So as I see it, the battle lines being drawn here are not only between political views of recreational drug use. They are also between folks who have an interest in seeing pot be regulated as a pharmaceutical product versus those who would make it a food and beverage ingredient that could fall into the GRAS (generally recognized as safe) classification used for many other common food additives.Yeah, I know. GRAS? Really? You just can't make this stuff up.
  • Posted on: 10/26/2017

    Retailers need to do a better job delivering groceries

    Let's be honest with ourselves: There's a great deal the grocery industry does not yet know about the subtleties of grocery order fulfillment. We know the principles alright -- hit the time windows; control temperature of chilled and frozen items; minimize missing or substituted items; select quality perishables -- but we have few actual best practices.It's either astounding or predictable that the art of the virtual grocery store has not progressed further after more than two decades of industry experience. Astounding because 20 years? Really? Predictable because supermarkets are incredibly conservative in their business practices and there really has not been much true competitive impetus from digital until about two years ago.It's quite ironic how the new emphasis on in-store order fulfillment of digital orders has intensified the critical role of skilled, motivated store associates. It's not about the app, folks. It's about fundamental operational best practices that may be enabled by tech, but must be performed by humans.
  • Posted on: 10/23/2017

    Apple opens invisible hangout in Chicago

    As a work of architecture, this new Apple retail space scores both esthetically and as a high concept. It appears compelling as a performance space and it conveys a stunning message about the high aspirations of the brand. But it's also a conceit -- further evidence of a company that has so much cash that it can afford to build monuments to itself. In this respect, it's hardly unprecedented. Consider the Wrigley building around the corner.The $1,350/square foot cost of construction seems eye-popping at first - until one compares the reported $5,546/square foot sales generated by Apple retail stores.Apple is hardly the only prestige brand to erect flagship stores. There are a slew of them spread along N. Michigan Avenue. But its ties to the digital/mobile economy has made it a unique influencer on other brands that began online and have moved into the brick and mortar domain. (Or is that the glass and marble domain?)
  • Posted on: 10/20/2017

    Drone-to-hand delivery could become a thing

    This story makes me want to invest in the helmet business.
  • Posted on: 10/17/2017

    What is the online marketplace opportunity for retailers?

    Alert retailers are well aware that more product searches begin on than on Google. So being present in its Marketplace may be regarded as a necessity. Finding ways to rise to the top of the 480 million-item stack is the challenge. How can a retailer excel in an environment where the primary differentiators are price and shipping terms?For commodity and highly-researched items, the only sure way to win the search is to be a penny cheaper than 100 other guys. This sets up a race to the bottom that retailers rightly abhor.If the cost of marketplace participation is nominal, most retailers need to maintain a visible presence. But it's a gambler's bet -- many views to gain just a few conversions.

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