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: 06/16/2017

    What happens now that Amazon is acquiring Whole Foods?

    Mind. Reeling. Investors. Salivating. Media. Exploding.I didn't need any coffee this morning to wake up once I saw the AMZN-WFM headline.My first thoughts were for Jeff Bezos:
    • Careful what you wish for, my friend. Owning stores means operating them hour-to-hour and integrating online sales means working out how to fulfill orders in the stores for delivery or collection. That's a massive challenge and I'm not so sure your early experiments with AmazonFresh and AmazonGo have revealed the answers yet.
    • Does Whole Foods have a reliable grasp on its store level inventories? Your online ordering engine will depend upon it. Adding pickers to the stores has potential to create some chaos.
    • On the plus side, you are acquiring a very valuable brand and real estate portfolio. Hope it doesn't make you feel too tied down.
    • Maybe today's $2B stock market gain is some consolation.
  • Posted on: 06/15/2017

    Will new payment options make Amazon Prime memberships even more popular?

    Clearly and are engaged in a pitched battle to win the hearts and minds of lower-income shoppers -- including the un-banked. Subscription fees are a turnoff to folks living paycheck to paycheck -- that auto-withdrawal might cause your cell phone check to bounce! But accepting electronic benefits for eligible purchases may add up to a hill of beans. And what retailer doesn't want to save a bundle on exchange fees? The big watch-out here (for both companies) is complexity. The ROI may be attractive but, as with any new service commitment, they should be careful what they wish for.
  • Posted on: 06/13/2017

    Has Rainbow Shops created a compensation model aligned with omnichannel realities?

    Not that I enjoy playing the "old curmudgeon card" (very much), but this problem of store returns attribution goes back to at least 2000 when JCPenney confronted the exact sort of store manager resentment from its pioneering efforts to pursue online sales.What's stunning to me 18 years later is that any unified commerce retailer is still struggling to work this out. For goodness sakes, it all comes down to establishing a fair, transparent policy and setting up accounting systems correctly.That said, Rainbow Shops deserves some props for tackling the issue in an intelligent manner. I'd take the policy a bit further: Why don't retailers actually credit a store every time it successfully processes a return from an online purchase? Why not also generate a report that tracks new purchases that happen on the same store visits?Returns are a key part of fulfilling the service promise to the shopper. Treating it as some sort of financial failure is downright spirit-killing.
  • Posted on: 06/13/2017

    Can retailers escape the scourge of free shipping?

    You are absolutely correct, Ken. Nuthin's free. One way or the other shipping has to be figured into the cost of goods ... eventually. Amazon knows full well that it is in a position to use shipping policies as a competitive pressure point. Other digital retailers follow suit because they think they have no choice but to match customer expectations. They may be right. So the illusion of free shipping won't go away unless some retailers bite the bullet and take it away. My money's on Walmart and my suggested tactic is true shipping cost transparency - down to the penny. Let shoppers make informed choices about fulfillment: where, how soon, and how much.
  • Posted on: 05/09/2017

    Should more brands offer rewards linked to store purchases?

    Scanning receipts with a mobile phone has been a failed bright idea for more than a decade now. Supermarket tapes, in particular, are too long to snap in a single image, so they must be laid out on a table while the mobile device camera is moved along. People simply won't make a habit of this. Fuggetaboutit.A far better way to obtain the info from a receipt is to use one of the new-generation cloud-connected receipt printers. These require no POS system integration and are real-time interactive, so a confirmation or bounce-back offer can be appended within milliseconds -- while the receipt is printing out.Ever get a coupon at the end of your receipt at Subway? That's how it's done.The same cloud data capture mechanism could quite easily be applied to a manufacturer points program, so long as the shopper's identity is captured.
  • Posted on: 05/09/2017

    Will next day delivery make Target an omnichannel force?

    Necessary, but not sufficient.Sure, shoppers may appreciate a service that keeps consumable items on hand with less effort. Target needs to offer this option because the bar has been set by others -- notably Amazon.Calling it "Restock" however, betrays the operational mindset behind the offering. If the service were designed around optimizing shopper experience, it would be more likely to become an essential feature in people's lives. That's where loyalty comes from. I'd rebrand it immediately -- to something like "My Pantry" and put consumer behaviorists in charge.For example, who cares if a replenishment delivery is "next day" so long as the items arrive comfortably before I run out? Sheer speed is a poor (and expensive) substitute for true timeliness, in my opinion. Smart in-home sensing and an AI engine might make that happen.
  • Posted on: 05/09/2017

    Will online grocers redefine hotel room service?

    I think a "stock my fridge" service has potential for a certain traveling audience. I, for one, would appreciate having some fresh fruit, crudites and a cold beer on hand when I arrive. I highly doubt too many of us are interested in preparing meals in our hotel rooms. Delivering microwavable dishes, however, might fly in some situations. For the true extended-stay guests -- like consultants who live near a client site for days or weeks at a time, a grocery delivery service starts to make more sense. Positioning this as a healthier eating program might win some loyal users.
  • Posted on: 05/04/2017

    How will passage of the overtime pay bill affect retailers and workers?

    Retail shift workers live with schedules that change every week, making life planning next to impossible. I know several young people who are unable to make personal commitments because they learn about their Sunday-to-Saturday hours on the preceding Friday. The number of hours often varies too, making it very difficult for part-timers to manage a second job or childcare routines.So a bill that allows workers theoretical "flexibility" to bank overtime hours for use as comp time sounds attractive on its face, but in the absence of any control over assigned shifts, it offers no real benefit for those workers. Far better to get paid for the overtime hours when they happen and take unpaid time off for emergencies.Employers, on the other hand, gain the slim advantage of deferring some compensation. They lose out on the administrative front, however, since under this rule, they would need to track comp hours on each employee's account.This one has me scratching my head. Why bother?
  • Posted on: 05/03/2017

    Are malls better off without department stores?

    Very creative thinking, Lyle. I'm especially intrigued by the suggestion that vast anchor spaces might be repurposed into classroom space. How many community colleges could benefit from a satellite campus, for example?Indoor recreation facilities also have potential in our experience-trending economy.Both would be boons for the food-court operators.Anchor lease commitments with excess square footage are an albatross for department store operators too. They create inertia against evolving the format, which makes malls seem moribund. Maybe a corollary question here should be, "Are Department Stores Better off Without Malls?"
  • Posted on: 04/27/2017

    Is Walmart’s Store No. 8 breaking boundaries or bonds with its core customers?

    From a macro-strategy perspective, Walmart has been accomplishing something remarkable: It has extended its life-cycle curve in a way that has eluded many other vast and powerful retailers.The Great Wal has reached what I would call a "fully-stored" status for its mainstream discount and supercenter concept in the U.S. (All relevant geographies covered, virtually all relevant households reached.) Further domestic growth would depend entirely on same-store sales increases -- a devilishly difficult proposition.Expanding additional lines of business -- Sam's Club, digital, and potentially other novel retail formats -- enables the company to define other paths to growth. It has sufficient resources to experiment at massive scale. It can maintain competitive pressure on retail upstarts and try to position itself in front of inevitable changes in shopper behavior.I don't see these initiatives as damaging to its core customer bonds in any way. I do see them as a concerted effort to connect with shoppers who don't view the big box store as a relevant format.Serve each customer in each moment as they wish to be served. That's the essence of today's retail mission. By flanking its terrestrial businesses with digital extensions, Walmart is attempting to live up to this imperative.
  • Posted on: 04/27/2017

    Is Trump’s tax plan right for retailers and their customers?

    This is a very succinct and accurate reading of the income tax cut proposal, Mark. It's pointless to try and form an opinion about the percentage rate in the absence of specifics about corporate deductions, credits and other forms of taxation.It is interesting to see how the RILA announcement declared opposition to the BAT or "border adjustment tax," an import tariff embedded in the tax package by House Speaker Ryan to help offset lower income tax revenues.The NRF wants tax reform, but it hates the BAT too. At last week's Global Retailing Conference here in Tucson, AZ, NRF President and CEO Matt Shay and Chairman of the Board Mindy Grossman of HSNi declared its opposition to the new tariff, on the grounds that it would be "a real job killer" that would also raise consumer prices.Who among us can remember a time when our historically conservative Washington D.C. retail trade associations declared opposition to a tax program proposed by the Republican leadership?
  • 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.

Contact James