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: 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.
  • Posted on: 02/01/2017

    How will online shopping transform the grocery business?

    Two decades ago I latched onto the trend story about online grocery ordering and home delivery from companies like Streamline (defunct) and Peapod (still surviving). I observed then that if 20% of shoppers used such services 25% of the time it would skim 5% of grocery trips off the top, while adding operational complexity and creating new price transparency. I boldly predicted it would take less than 5 years to achieve this impact.Well, as Ken sagely observes, online grocery sales has been a slow-motion overnight success story. Shoppers didn't change their habits overnight. They have been enmeshed in the world's largest test-and-learn experience, as innovators keep experimenting with new methods of digital merchandising, promotion and order fulfillment.To reach 20% penetration by 2025, as the FMI/Nielsen report boldly predicts, 40% of households will need to purchase groceries online 50% of the time. The present figures cited above (at 23% of U.S. households, 60% spend 25%) works out to about a 4% share, so there's a long road yet to travel.What we see happening is hardly a tipping point. It's the continuation of a gradual, inexorable displacement of grocery shopping habits, owing to a plethora of FMCG purchasing alternatives that range from Dash buttons to meal kit services to full-basket home delivery to click-and-collect.In response, we are witnessing the necessary evolution of the brick-and-mortar supermarket from a center-store-weighted concept that used to be focused on frequently-replenished packaged goods to a perimeter-weighted concept increasingly focused on fresh and prepared foods.I'm ready to make one more bold prediction, here and now: Most households will still be shopping in grocery stores most of the time in 2025 and we RW BrainTrusters will still be analyzing reports of this "sudden" market shift.
  • Posted on: 01/31/2017

    Should the Monday after the Super Bowl be a national holiday?

    I wouldn't underestimate the clever intent of Kraft Heinz ploy to engineer a controversy about creating a post-game holiday. National legislation is a non-starter, of course, but who cares about that when you can collect 47,000 petitions (and counting)?As our tweeter-in-chief has been proving, you can manipulate media response by simply putting an unconventional or odious idea out there for public view. No matter what opinion you espouse, there are probably 50,000 folks who will say they agree with it on social media (and an equal number who oppose). An extra paid day off work is likely to be a popular idea with many more than that.Hats off to the Kraft Heinz content marketers who came up with this economical stunt. It's paying off in brand exposures big time.
  • Posted on: 01/27/2017

    Will Whole Foods stay fresh using outside suppliers?

    Managing food prep quality and safety across 464 in-store kitchens is a complex and labor-intensive task. It's not surprising for Whole Foods to seek ways to improve this aspect of its business.It could have centralized some recipe preparation at corporate-owned locations, but that would require added facilities investment and distribution systems. Shifting the burden to expert suppliers seems sensible on its face. To make this work, Whole Foods would have to define and enforce stringent recipe requirements and standards to protect its reputation with customers.The role of the in-store kitchens and personnel would obviously change under this new system. Less prep, less equipment, more unpacking and re-heating, I suppose.Off-site food prep creates another operational change, I think. Many supermarket kitchens source ingredients from the store inventory, which affects ordering and accounting processes. If prepared foods are pre-assembled elsewhere, store orders of those ingredients will be reduced accordingly. Without more information about Whole Foods' methods, I cannot offer an opinion about this, good, bad or neutral.I was surprised to read here that its prepared foods bar includes few or no organic offerings. Thanks, Ken, for making me aware of this.
  • Posted on: 01/27/2017

    Should retail still be nervous about the cloud?

    Cloud-based solutions make plenty of sense for online retailing and analytics systems. For certain store-centric functions, however, retailers are correct to resist relocating mission-critical computing to remote, centralized systems.Case in point: store-level perpetual inventory and automated ordering systems for FMCG need a "local loop" linking handheld devices and the POS to work effectively. That typically means placing a small dedicated server in each physical location. The alternative, sending shelf-scan data upstream to centralized order management platform, introduces delays in communications and ordering time lag inaccuracies that cause out-of-stocks, excess inventory, labor excesses, or all three.Of course local replenishment systems still need to report upstream to management and analytics systems, These can dwell successfully in the cloud, enabling visualization of insights and reporting. This "big loop" is essential too, but it does not erase the need for the local loop.
  • Posted on: 01/26/2017

    Will Snickers score big with live Super Bowl spot?

    Live commercials were once a common practice on TV. There's even precedent for animal acts: Ed McMahon and Johnny Carson hilariously hawked Alpo dog food on the Tonite Show in 1973.I'd bet the Snickers marketing team is desperately hoping for something unexpected to happen during the Super Bowl spot. The long live-stream preamble will increase the odds of that happening.
  • Posted on: 01/26/2017

    Do retailers need to work on making more emotional connections?

    I'm fond of repeating Groucho Marx's quip on the topic: "Authenticity. If you can fake that, you've got it made." (Sorry if you've seen this one here before.)This makes me laugh every time but it is actually a rather wise take on the issue. For retailers and brands a contrived story will repel shoppers, so keeping it real is essential. Recent studies suggest this is especially true for the Millennial cohort, but speaking as a graying Boomer, it's pretty important to me too.Emotion and authenticity often coexist, but they are not automatically the same. A brand that stands for something has an edge, in my opinion. If not everybody likes what you're about, that's OK too. A grocery store known for having the best meats department doesn't worry that vegans won't be impressed. If your focus is on yoga clothes it's OK to leave golf apparel to the store across the mall. If your online specialty store is committed to ethical sourcing, you can't be concerned about price points that are a bit steep for budget shoppers.I guess what I'm saying is that the "big middle" is the dwelling place of mediocrity. Emotional loyalty lives on the edges.
  • Posted on: 01/23/2017

    Is four-wall profitability still a relevant metric?

    In the Incredible Dissolving Store, many traditional assumptions go out the window and our conversions must be attributed to influences in both the physical and virtual realms.What happens within the four walls still matters a lot, but evaluating each store as an individual selling unit becomes less and less adequate every day. Of course physical sales are heavily influenced by online interactions, and of course store personnel are increasingly tasked with various follow up services that may not add directly to the the top line.So it makes a certain sense to combine store and online sales within local geographies to form a more complete picture of retail success. The glaring omission from this thesis, however, is the careful measurement of shopper influences and behaviors before and after the transactions themselves.Attribution is certainly hard, and retail as an industry is certainly not very good at this yet. Every sale is the culmination of a set of influences that are partially within the retailer's control (like in-store promotions and online merchandising) and partially outside the retailer's control (like customer reviews, social media and the actions of competitors).Today's retail environment is simultaneously a building, a geography, a virtual space and an idea that resides within the mind of the shopper. "How did we do?" has become a much more intricate question indeed.
  • Posted on: 01/23/2017

    Can retail compete for data scientists?

    Retail may be arriving a bit late to the data science party, but there is no doubt that ours is an increasingly data-intensive business. So we need to pursue people with these skills and abilities.For the most part, however, the industry should not be competing to hire white-coated academic theorists. Leave them to the software companies and the consulting firms. Retailers need applied talent — people with business training and practical knowledge.There are a handful of university programs in retail and consumer science that have been turning out young merchants who can sift data and code. These are new forms of literacy in our world and big chains like Walmart, Macy's, J.C. Penney, Home Depot and PetSmart have been snapping up those graduates year after year.Certainly the NRF Foundation's RISE Up initiative promoting retail careers and credentialing is in part a response to this reality. In the next few years, DATA SCIENCE competency will emerge as a core skill, not an exotic specialty.So here's a tip for job-seekers in the age of 'bots: Find a way to honestly work those two magic words into your resume.
  • Posted on: 01/19/2017

    Will Walmart’s Scan & Go catch on this time around?

    I view Scan & Go version 2 as another bridge technology that will enable Walmart Labs to study how shoppers interact with mobile self-checkout and design newer, better mechanisms.I'm not a big fan of retailer-specific mobile apps. They are a nuisance for shoppers much of the time. It's still early in the game, however and we may anticipate some convergence between branded retail apps and mobile payment systems that could lead to more useful solutions that work across retail environments.That would put another spin on "unified commerce." Due to their immense scale, both Walmart and Amazon have potential to become major providers of self-checkout solutions that work everywhere.
  • Posted on: 01/19/2017

    Will a movie and gourmet food combo drive crowds to the mall?

    Luxury "screening-room" movie theaters are certainly finding a market. One company, called RoadHouse Cinemas, has been offering pleasant dine-in movie experiences for several years at several locations here in Arizona.These may draw destination traffic, but I'm skeptical that they do much to generate shopping at adjacent stores. The RoadHouse location I'm familiar with is located in a fairly nice strip center. After an evening showing, most of the stores are already closed. So much for retail synergies.This discussion does put a sharp point on the challenges faced by large enclosed shopping malls, however. With anchor stores closing and a general excess of square footage, it's not surprising to hear of mall operators looking for new experiences to attract visitors and keep the space productive.The trouble with turning malls into indoor amusement parks is that those attractions may compete for share of wallet versus other tenants who have stuff to sell.

Contact James