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: 09/15/2016

    When will AR and VR become “realities” at retail?

    While it may be said that both AR and VR technologies are already realities, these technologies ave been long-on-ramp situations for mainstream retail.If you haven't played with Google Skymap to locate planets and constellations, then you don't really know augmented reality. For me, that was three smartphones ago.I also tested an AR "reality browsing" app on my first smartphone more than 5 years ago, that superimposed shop location icons on the screen when you aimed the phone's camera down the street (but only in a few cities, like Portland). Very similar to the Pokemon Go experience that has captivated so many folks this year.The reality browser was put to amazing use in 2009 at the Voodoo festival in New Orleans.Other than a few demos on my Google Cardboard, the most interesting VR example I've seen yet for retailers is Lowe's Holoroom, which uses Oculus-type headsets to give customers a 360-degree "inside look" at a kitchen or bathroom plan with virtual renderings of fixtures and surfaces. Beck Besecker, founder of the tech vendor, Marxent, shared a demo at last April's Global Retailing Conference at the University of Arizona in Tucson. This might actually be useful for some people.OK, so the tech is real and it works, after a fashion. The much larger remaining issues for retailers, I think, are the creation of really solid use cases, experiences and content. It's going to take years to transition AR and VR from clever novelties into practical tools for shoppers, and there are lots of other tech priorities ahead the queue.
  • Posted on: 09/09/2016

    These social media behaviors are turning off your followers

    "Authenticity. If you can fake that, you've got it made."Please forgive me for quoting Groucho Marx here again, but, he truly nailed the social media problem back in the days when telegram senders had their own version of the 140-character limit.We gray-hairs can offer all kinds of advice to social media marketers about the tone, content and frequency of messaging, but in the end, it comes down to writing ability and strategic coherence. If you paid as much to send a tweet as Groucho did to send a telegram, you might put more resources into the message content.So if you are tempted to flood your audience with cheap-to-send messages with the intent of driving up marginal response, be careful. This survey may have some validity issues, but the findings are still food for thought. The test of relevance is far more nuanced than "did the recipient ever view this product category?" And price offers ring more and more hollow as their frequency increases.Content creators must also stay cognizant of the range of sensibilities within their target audiences. Millennials and boomers, for example, may not use the same slang, laugh at the same jokes, or use the same apps. What feels authentic to me is not always the same as what feels authentic to the 20-somethings I know.
  • Posted on: 09/09/2016

    These social media behaviors are turning off your followers

    You have to admit Kohl's gaffe was funny — only in a wildly different way than they intended it to be.
  • Posted on: 08/29/2016

    How much loyalty do off-pricers have?

    Perhaps overlooked in this discussion is the reality that for a great many shoppers, off-price apparel has become the primary option. This is a hard reality for mainstream and upscale department stores, but it largely explains why they are expanding with off-price shops of their own.Buyers for TX Maxx, Marshalls, and Ross — not to mention Steinmart and Burlington Coat Factory — may be vying to source and sell the same pair of name brand jeans to the same shoppers. To keep their racks full and interest high, they fill them in with off-brand or even direct-sourced merchandise that is made specifically for the channel.Hard for me to see how veteran bargain-hunters can muster up a loyal feeling for this kind of shopping experience.
  • Posted on: 08/29/2016

    ConAgra, Unilever mull delivering meals to the home

    It's not a coincidence that this month's (October) Consumer Reports magazine includes a major feature comparing services and food from meal kit purveyors Hello Fresh, Green Chef, Plated, Purple Carrot and Blue Apron. This is a business concept whose time has come — with a strong accent on fresh ingredients.Like many others here, I am skeptical whether packaged foods companies can wield the right kind of credibility and trust with consumers to succeed with their own meal kit solutions. Even a highly convenient bundle of cans, boxes and pouches filled with processed foods won't meet many people's standards for their dinner tables.For supermarkets, on the other hand, I believe meal kits are a grand opportunity to refresh the "meal solutions" concept that has been hanging around since the 1990s. Here's my thinking: Click-and-collect-my-meal-kit. Shoppers use your store mobile app to select from a limited number of menu offerings each day of the week. Enter the number of servings. Pick up a bundle of raw and/or prepared items on the way home from work — possibly along with other grocery items.Hear me grocers: The pioneers have already proven that there is gross margin to be found in meal kits. They use much of theirs up in the delivery process. Store pick-up leaves all kinds of room beneath their price points. Just make certain your quality standards are impeccable.Now, getting back to the package foods giants: How about helping supermarkets put truly great meal kit programs together that incorporate some of your products? But be selective about the products that you push, because you can bet the shoppers will be.
  • Posted on: 08/25/2016

    Can Best Buy build momentum with new services and IoT?

    Connected home devices represent a massive emerging market, and Best Buy is better positioned than any other brick and mortar retailer to take a leadership role. But becoming an IoT leader means venturing out from its comfort zone in appliances, networking, computer and video gear to encompass home security, lighting, irrigation systems, HVAC — maybe even power window treatments.Without question there will be billions of IoT devices sold over the next decade in the U.S. market alone. Best Buy recognizes this, but so do many others. I'd anticipate tremendous price competition for the devices themselves, and rising need for expert services for installation, monitoring and maintenance.The Geek Squad could be Best Buy's ace in the hole, but as Ken Cassar smartly points out, there are alternative service providers like Enjoy, who have their eyes on this profit center without the burden of inventory carrying costs.
  • Posted on: 08/24/2016

    How much will POS malware attack cost Eddie Bauer?

    When I read in the Eddie Bauer press release that the data thefts took place over a 6 month period (Jan. to July), I had to sigh. Even if the attackers were "sophisticated" as claimed, the company was asleep at the switch. Heads hafta roll.Now we witness yet another retail company mobilizing to padlock the barn door after the horses have been rustled through a hole cut in the side wall. This happens so regularly that its almost funny. And yes, Ben, I suspect consumers are becoming numb about this sort of incident.What's been missing from this story and many that preceded it is a precise assessment of the actual damage to shoppers. How many identities and credit card numbers were stolen? How many consumers suffered direct losses on those accounts? What proportion of those losses were covered by the retailers and banks? How many affected shoppers actually make use of free identity protection services offered?Finally, do those affected shoppers actually stay away in droves following a reported cyber attack? Or do they just say they will when they answer surveys?
  • Posted on: 08/24/2016

    Has Sears discovered how to profit from its softer side?

    While not impossible, it will take some promotional magic for Sears to attract new traffic by offering these barely-known brands. Would BrainTrust-ers who live in those markets kindly keep an eye out for their print ads and newspaper inserts? I'd be curious to see how they introduce "Showcase" to the market.OK, so if share of customers is a tough road, maybe Sears is aiming first for share of wallet? I don't know much about current shoppers in the five metro New York locations, but Sears could be betting that the new offerings will persuade them to make incremental purchases and visit more often. I hope they did their research. (Or maybe these pilot locations ARE the research?)For Sears' sake, I hope its partner in this venture, SGN Group, has the know how to reach shoppers with the right message and merchandise. Buzz words like "boutique" and "curated collection" will only go so far to inspire acquisitive curiosity.
  • Posted on: 08/23/2016

    Why is Apple dropping ‘Store’ from the name of its stores?

    So what was I missing? I just searched dozens of Apple place exterior pics on Google Images and I didn't find the word "store" on any of them.Too bad, because I was planning a snarky comment about how much money they'd save in signage. But no luck. The Apple is just the Apple and it has been just that from the beginning.I suppose calling its walk-in locations "stores" was originally a signal to the investor community. Now that it's clear the locations are as much about service delivery as product sales the word is at least redundant -- at worst inaccurate.This is a fine little press-release moment for the Apple folks, but I don't think it changes a darned thing.
  • Posted on: 08/22/2016

    Will drop shipments become a major online fulfillment tool?

    Drop-shipping of online orders from their manufacturer facilities is not exactly a new concept. It can work well in situations where the seller is playing the role of order-taker but not order-consolidator.For higher consideration/higher cost items like electronics, appliances or furniture, and even print-on-demand books, drop-shipping enables the retailer to offer a broader range of products while minimizing inventory investment. Those items are shipped once, not twice, saving considerable costs, handling, and shrinkage.This can get complicated in an any-channel environment, when customers want to present online purchases to the store for return. The drop-ship arrangement may also present limitations on the retailer's ability to offer discount prices and promotions.On balance, I see drop-shipping as one of several fulfillment options that may coexist for an online retailer.
  • Posted on: 08/22/2016

    Will Amazon drive-up grocery stores disrupt food retailing?

    Based on too-little information in the news stories, it seems likely that Amazon is testing its own version of the click-and-collect grocery concept pioneered by Carrefours and Auchan in France and similar concepts already tested by both Kroger and Walmart here in the U.S.For me, the most convincing piece of information is the architect's rendering filed with the city of Sunnyvale, CA and published in the Silicon Valley Business Journal article a year ago. The general design is strikingly similar to the Carrefours Drive facility pictured in a presentation at the 2015 TPA Supply Chain Conference and a similar image published by Walmart earlier this year.All these facilities resemble a Sonic drive in -- a row of drive-thru, covered parking spaces adjacent to a relatively small building where orders are assembled. Drive up, pop the trunk, an employee loads the order within minutes -- slam and go. Very convenient for a mom driving a carpool or a dad rushing home from the office.It's not a bit surprising that Amazon would test its own version of this concept. Neither is it surprising that it uses a moniker like "Project X" to add dramatic tension to the inevitable "leak" of information. Apparent secrecy makes any ordinary business test seem more sophisticated and important.I doubt that Amazon is worried that this test will disrupt its other grocery selling channels. If anything it might be incremental, since click-and-collect is more suitable for selling fresh and prepared foods. Covering the landscape with convenient Project X locations would be a monumental undertaking, however, and existing supermarket chains across the country would be likely to open competing locations.Bottom line -- click-and-collect is a sound service concept that is relatively easy to clone. Amazon is a fast-follower in this, not an innovator.
  • Posted on: 07/29/2016

    Will 365 concept prove to be the future of Whole Foods?

    While it's difficult to draw conclusions from just the first two stores, lower operating costs and simplified pricing may allow 365 by Whole Foods to keep prices in line with rivals like Trader Joe's and mainstream supermarkets.There's a fair amount of cost-saving innovation going on -- like less labor, electronic shelf labels, prepackaged meats and energy-saving technologies -- but the real difference seems to be in the assortment itself. I'm sure there will be plenty of certified organic and sustainably-sourced products, but I suspect the ratio of luxury food items will be lower compared with the classic Whole Foods stores.While it's tempting to compare 365 with Trader Joe's, I think an equally challenging competitor could be 220-store Sprouts, which has positioned itself as the healthy food supermarket for the masses across the southwest. Other regional competitive pressure comes from Natural Grocers (96 stores), the Colorado-based chain, and The Fresh Market, based in Greensboro, NC with 185 stores.Whole Foods has earned most of the headlines nationally, and at its core it's really a luxury food chain that may be close to filling out its national footprint. 365 looks like a bid to expand its customer base with a format that fits in middle class communities. If I were Whole Foods, I'd probably leave most of my main-line stores alone, but there may be a handful that are candidates for conversion to the 365 format based on local demographics.
  • Posted on: 07/28/2016

    How should commissions work in the era of omnichannel retailing?

    The challenge of attributing the sale dates back nearly 20 years, to the first multi-channel retailer to accept an in-store return of an online purchase. Managers rightly balked at the notion that their store productivity could be negatively impacted when they issue a credit. Not to mention the staff time that would be soaked up by the service encounter and restocking.The perception at the time was that the online channel was effectively in competition with the stores. Pursuit of fairness led to some early policies to credit stores with a proportion of online sales. In the ensuing unified commerce world, new customer paths, notably BOPIS, add new wrinkles to the attribution question.Commission-based sales are certainly impacted by extension. There are several schemes worth considering to add fairness, without relying solely upon the "last-touch" model. One might be to pool commissions for net sales completed entirely online and allocate to personnel based on each store's geographic footprint. This is like found money for the sales staff, so payout rates might be adjusted lower.Certainly online-sales fulfilled in stores should be commission-able as well. Pooling at store level would make sense here. Any online order completed in the store with the assistance of store personnel should be treated like any other fully-commissioned special order sale.I see no reason why a modern retailer with commissioned sales people could not find a way to automate the accounting for this. Management would gain an information bonus in the process -- a more detailed understanding of how sales happen in the Incredible Dissolving Store.
  • Posted on: 07/13/2016

    How far should brands go with functional packaging?

    Folks have been storing stuff in cardboard shoe boxes for well over a century. (I looked it up.) They are a triumph of functional design.How many of us are old enough to remember making dioramas out of shoe boxes in elementary school? Some white glue; a little plastic dinosaur; some leftover Easter grass; voila!Perforated cardboard packages that can be converted into whimsical toys or art are fun too, but not a strong reason to buy the product inside.Those un-openable welded plastic blister packages, however, are useless for any secondary purpose except cutting your fingers. They are a good reason NOT to buy what's inside.Functional packaging is not exactly a new idea. The old Barnum's Animal Cracker boxes came with a string handle and lively decorations that gave them temporary play value. And don't forget those single-serve cereal cartons, with the flaps that punch out of one side so you can make a "bowl."Adding electronics seems a little weird on first thought, but then again, those greeting cards that play music when you open them seemed pretty exotic when they were introduced in the 1980s.In the realm of consumer packaged goods, the package is integral with the product. If your bag of rice comes with a zip lock closure, that's a functional package. So are those yogurt cups that separate the crunchy part from the wet part until you open and mix them together.My favorite example by far is an ice cream bar on a stick. Time for lunch, I guess.
  • Posted on: 07/13/2016

    Amazon declares victory – Prime Day II concludes

    Prime Day is all about new members. Selling stuff is a fine thing, but expanding the network is far more valuable to Amazon.It's time for us retail experts to shift our analytic perspective when trying to get a handle on the Big A. It's not a merchandise-centric enterprise, despite its colossal sales. In fact, it doesn't really have a merchandising philosophy at all — it just sells everything.Amazon is all about tapping into an ever-widening swath of consumption behavior and gaining an expanding share of an increasing number of wallets. Its brilliance has been about engineering consumer behavior to its profitable advantage.That's why Prime Day will be deemed a success if a surge of sign-ups results. Sure, the one-day deals sacrifice some margin to create excitement. The offset comes from membership fees which provide working capital (ask the late Sol Price about that when you meet him in retail heaven). After that, it's all about lifetime customer value. Nobody cultivates that better than

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