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 [email protected], 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: 04/11/2017

    Would Whole Foods do better under new ownership?

    You really nail the essence of Whole Foods' current challenge in your second sentence, Mohamed. The company is now confronting change in its market relevance that has been wrought in large measure by its own success and the responses of competitors.One of my favorite axioms is, "Under different circumstances, circumstances will be different." Whole Foods must continue to adapt or risk being overtaken by more moderately priced "better-for-you" chains, like Sprouts, and the merchandising adjustments of powerful mainstream operators like Kroger. Sure, an entrepreneurial spirit is a necessary ingredient, but redefining its value proposition requires both inspiration and discipline.
  • Posted on: 04/10/2017

    Should the same-store sales metric be retired?

    The same-store-sales metric was manipulated for many years by certain fast-growing retail chains, who understood the ramp-up pattern of newly opened stores in years two and three. By figuring the residual growth effects of year-two and year-three stores into the results of "existing" stores, sharp retailers knew they could make their averages look better, even when their portfolio included a high percentage of "dogs" in older locations. Wall Street analysts seemed pretty easily deceived by this tactic throughout the '80s and '90s.Of course, this only worked if you opened new stores at a consistently rapid rate, year after year. Once you slow the pace, the "second-year effect" evaporates and same-store numbers are negatively affected. The good news was that a clever retail chain CEO could use a strong SSS report to buck up share prices, affording access to capital that permitted headlong expansion -- for a while.But saturation is an inevitable consequence. In an over-stored marketplace, true same-store sales increases that result from actual performance increases are devilishly hard to achieve. Using growth to mask poor performance is not sustainable. Real retail sales growth, on an average-sales-per-square-foot basis chainwide, is a nearly miraculous achievement.As if that wasn't difficult enough, over the last two decades we have also witnessed an increasing share of transactions siphoned away from stores by their affiliated web stores. No wonder the old same-store-sales numbers seem under pressure. Even sales-per-square-foot metrics have a different meaning in this context.I'd contend that same-store-sales metrics are not obsolete in the current era, but their significance has been transformed. No longer a simple heuristic for chain retail health, SSS is now one of several relevant and important metrics. My list would include: the size and strength of the customer relationship portfolio; store and web traffic trends; on-shelf availability; and sales per employee FTE.
  • Posted on: 03/29/2017

    Sam’s says it’s scoring with club pickup

    Needless to say, I was favorably impressed by Mr. Ianone's discussion about Club Pickup. It makes sense to design service experiences for high-value business customers. I've been a loyal Costco member for many years, but I'm heading over to our local Sam's this afternoon to see their process in action.
  • Posted on: 03/27/2017

    Lowe’s innovates because it has to

    "Clearly-defined use cases." Exactly! A DIY home center store has a special affinity for project visualization, planning, and how-to instruction. A shoe store not so much.The "holo-room" VR setup at Lowe's makes a certain amount of sense in that regard. So does a robot that can offer real help with locating a specific part or material. At the moment, however, neither solution can interact with large numbers of shoppers at a time. So it remains to be seen how much of a business impact is possible.In testing these tools, retailers should take care to avoid the "not-invented-here" attitude that brought down many early dot-com initiatives. Just as you don't want to invent your own online catalog or shopping cart platform, you don't want to invent your own VR or robotics technology. Tech firms are lining up to supply these capabilities. Focus on the use case and purchase the technology that fits best.Lowe's may be more venturesome than most, but its innovation lab is collaborating with technology partners on both its Holoroom and LoweBot tests. That seems like good judgment to me.
  • Posted on: 03/24/2017

    Can compete on experience over price?

    Nordstrom online sales have grown to nearly one-fourth of its total revenue by fiscal year end in January, it reported. So its commitment to the online experience should not be doubted.It's true that not every shopping interaction follows a linear sequence from clicks to bricks. Shoppers will define their own paths, according to their needs and preferences at each moment. seems determined to unify the brand experience, not just integrate the technology, so its customers feel they are dealing with the same company, regardless of the point of contact.How well it can resist competitive price pressure remains to be seen, and that will depend in part on the active collaboration of its branded suppliers.
  • Posted on: 03/13/2017

    Are retailers ‘blind’ to digital marketing’s flaws?

    In this context I feel compelled once again to echo the media sage Marshall McLuhan's observation that new media displace -- but do not replace -- old. For retailers that means (in part) that the existence of digital and social media options does not make traditional channels obsolete. It does affect how we use them, however.I'd posit several factors to explain retailer's media shift toward digital marketing -- fad, experimentation, imputed shopper interest, promises from media vendors, hoped-for cost control. Certainly a dollar invested on Facebook marketing is not available for a print ad in the newspaper, so the shift is real.As a group, I think retailers have not come close to being artful in their digital marketing methods. The media environment is chaotic. Trends and platforms evolve and expire rapidly. Shoppers have many choices and distractions and may seem fickle. Attribution and ROI keep getting harder to quantify.But if the data reveals that shoppers favor the convenience of digital coupons linked to their frequent shopper cards, it behooves retailers to deliver them, and pay close attention to the response.
  • Posted on: 03/13/2017

    Will ‘Fearless Girl’ lead to more women on retail company boards?

    You gotta love the message of "courage in the face of power" that has been broadcast by this bronze figure. From a metaphorical perspective, my only (slight) regret is the diminutive stature of the female figure. Nevertheless, I am rooting for Fearless Girl to remain as a permanent fixture on Wall Street.Will more female corporate board members result? Well, the beefy world of business cronyism has certainly discouraged participation by anyone outside the club, and this statue won't have a direct effect. But changes in mores typically follow an accumulation of insights over time. Fearless Girl has already become a meme. I believe it will inspire young women to compete for their rightful places in leadership.
  • Posted on: 03/09/2017

    Has Walmart found a digital answer for empty store shelves?

    Some astute comments here, Ken. I'm in firm agreement that an in-store endless aisle appliance is not a solution for inventory inaccuracy problems. It has some potential, however, as a merchandising tool for high-consideration items not normally stocked in the physical retail environment because they are unlikely to turn fast enough. As you observe, however, that experience is easily delivered on a PC or mobile screen without the need to come into the store.For the rare store shopper who desires exposure to a wider online assortment, why not skip the appliance in favor of a beacon that interacts with their mobile app? Much less costly to deploy, I'd surmise.Walmart deserves some kudos for its willingness to experiment with this concept, but if it wants to improve its inventory visibility it should try another tack.
  • Posted on: 03/07/2017

    Will the joking stop now that IKEA furniture can be assembled in minutes?

    I just came across a rumor on the dark web that some Silicon Valley kids are secretly developing a robotic drone-delivered table that assembles itself then folds and flies its own corrugated packaging back to the factory for recycling. No instruction manual included -- just download the augmented reality app.Uh, no. I guess the unfunny jokes aren't over yet.
  • Posted on: 02/28/2017

    Will smart shelves ever be smart enough for Kroger and other retailers?

    In-store sensing and at-shelf performance management represent another case of an overnight innovation that has taken 20 years to emerge.The tech is evolving -- getting more reliable and cheaper to build and deploy. But the practices that make it useful are lagging badly. Let's face it -- a likely reason why Kroger hasn't rolled its electronic price tags across the landscape yet is probably because it hasn't worked out how to get the payback, at scale. With 30,000 items per store and 2,400 stores, that's like 70 million tags to buy, install, and maintain. Not to mention the store wireless networks, back-room servers and system integration. Utter reliability is paramount too, and confidence requires more than just a quick proof-of-concept. The creative use of these devices for shopper marketing is an art in its infancy.Progress may be hard, but I firmly believe electronic price tags are are definitely coming. They are already more widespread in Europe than in the U.S. The low-hanging benefits are rapid price changes and possibly some labor savings.From the perspective of inventory management, merely reporting on-shelf availability data to a management dashboard is not enough. Those OOS-sensing smart shelves must be intricately interwoven with store perpetual inventory, reordering and replenishment practices in order to have a material impact. Most retailers aren't very good at those things now. Adding a new sensor to the mix will make things harder at first, not easier.
  • Posted on: 02/27/2017

    Did Walmart’s short films win Oscar night?

    Loved the concept, but the execution was so-so. There was a lot of expensive visual production going on, but not a lot of evident attention to brand. Mostly we witnessed some movie-makers showing off their technical chops before an audience of movie industry influencers.One delightful exception were the yellow smileys that floated down from the spacecraft at the end of "The Gift." But you had to look fast to recognize them as brand icons.As a set, all three spots were very much hallucinatory in style, Makes me wonder about the creative direction the directors were given.It will be interesting to watch and see if this truly marks a turning point for Walmart positioning -- a shift in balance toward identifying with its shoppers' experience ("Live Better") with reduced emphasis on the pure low-price message. If so, I'd prescribe an approach going forward that is more story-driven and less about special effects.
  • Posted on: 02/15/2017

    Will having the same buyers for online and stores work for Walmart?

    When it comes to centralizing its buying function, I suspect Walmart's motivations are less about purchasing leverage (can't get much higher) and more about perfecting its inventory awareness.The name of the game in unified commerce is knowing where all your stuff is at all times. I'm not shocked that the Great Wal hasn't unified buying already, but I do agree that it's high time (as Zel said) to walk the talk.
  • Posted on: 02/08/2017

    How good is ‘close enough’ when it comes to in-store inventory?

    I continue to be amazed at how my beloved retail industry continues to downplay the essential requirement for store-level, real-time, perpetual inventory. Not some approximation in the cloud. I mean sensing and tracking within each and every building, by continuously triangulating data from receiving, POS, and shelf spot-checks for every item, every minute of every day.Accurate store-level reordering is near impossible without this information. Without it, inventory inaccuracy reigns and customers are frequently disappointed. Without it, click-and-collect is frequently a crapshoot for retailers offering unified commerce.Once a truly reliable store-level PI is established, the data (maintained within each store's local server) rolls up nicely to the distribution-center and enterprise levels and numerous benefits accrue. Among them: maximum on-shelf availability without excess safety stocks; correct promotional quantities; reduced shrink; more timely re-orders; fewer delivery truck miles; store labor efficiency.For retailers that offer online ordering with rapid in-store pickup, store-level PI offers an additional huge win: high confidence about the availability of every item ordered on-line. Make no mistake: you'll never make good on your service promises to your customers without it.
  • Posted on: 02/07/2017

    Will automated scheduling ease retail’s staffing problems?

    Shift scheduling using computer algorithms has been around for some time now, but it has typically focused primarily on cost containment for the retailer. For hourly workers, one of the ongoing frustrations can be learning one's shift schedule on Friday for the following week, which makes planning personal obligations more stressful. Even more disheartening can be discovering that one's shift has been shortened after arriving for the workday -- a situation that some restaurant workers encounter routinely.Injecting some machine intelligence into the system offers a potential path to re-balancing this equation. It's worth doing, since labor costs are not the only relevant component of retail profitability. Service levels could be gauged to optimize customer experience and promote sales. Predictive analytics could help with this while ensuring workers encounter fewer surprises in their personal schedules.Will this lead to superior performance at retail? If labor cost is the only metric tracked, then probably not. But overall store performance might correlate more positively, all factors considered. As the sage Berra liked to say, "You can see a lot, just by looking."
  • Posted on: 02/06/2017

    Which commercial won the Super Bowl broadcast?

    While not on any most-popular list I've seen, Ford's mini-movie "No One Likes to Get Stuck" was probably my favorite overall. It portrayed a variety of real-life frustrations (stalled ski-lift; kite caught in tree; traffic jam; car stuck in snowbank) and then how Ford was working on solutions that will make life a little better. Light humor and a relevant message from a company that wants to be viewed as a progress leader.Least favorite for me was the disturbing Humpty Dumpty spot from TurboTax.

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