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: 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
  • Posted on: 07/08/2016

    Are in-store personalization tactics becoming less creepy?

    When it comes to cool-versus-creepy, I think the creep factor is highly situational.An example (for those gentlemen in our cadre who sometimes buy fine clothing): If the tailor asks you, "Do you dress left or right?" is that a violation of your intimate space or a helpful personalization of your trouser purchase? Does your answer depend on your age or past experiences or the price tag of the garment?Now how about building similar investigative features into a "smart" mirror in the dressing room? I'd guess some shoppers might find this pretty cool, while others might think only of the body scan data that winds up in the store's creepy database.Machine-controlled shopper interactions may be personalized in a variety of ways, but that does not make them personal in the emotional sense. I believe even tech-saturated millennials can feel the difference.A mobile phone app that relentlessly suggests deals or add-on purchases to shoppers as they move about the store or mall may be technically feasible, but does it make for a better customer experience? Somewhere between "cool!" and "creepy" there's another value that's just "cold."
  • Posted on: 07/08/2016

    Will new gen grocery stores cut waste down to zero?

    We call them "consumer packaged goods" because the stuff on the outside is often inextricable from the stuff on the inside. Elimination of all packaging is not merely a utopian ideal for waste reduction, it's a re-imagination of the entire business model.Can you imagine buying an unwrapped Snicker's bar from a bin? Or is that a Milky Way that a previous customer moved by mistake? (Gee I hope the kid's hands were clean.)Is the milk in that re-used glass jar organic or 2% or vanilla almond? How is the cashier supposed to tell the difference?So yeah, I do my best to remember to bring my cloth grocery bags in from the car. And I buy some bulk foods like nuts and rolled oats (that come home in plastic bags).But packaging serves several essential purposes: Assurance of the authenticity of the product is one. Safety and cleanliness is another. A billboard for branding and required product description is yet another. You simply can't have self-service mass merchandising without it.How and how much packaging to use is an important subject. Reduce - reuse - recycle are certainly values to live by, but all-bulk food shopping is a boutique concept, not a substitute for mass merchandising.
  • Posted on: 07/08/2016

    Walmart in no hurry to add other mobile payment options

    I'm not a fan of retailer-specific mobile apps. I shop in lots of places and don't want to manage multiple apps any more than I want to carry two dozen loyalty cards in a bulging wallet. So Walmart isn't tempting me with its proprietary mobile payments system, despite some admirable security features. In fact, it kind of alienates me. I do think the receipt storage feature is worthy of emulation by others.
  • Posted on: 07/05/2016

    Should e-mails and other personal info be for sale?

    Considering the cumulative investment and competitive advantage built into a customer database, corporations are compelled to recognize their value on the books. Then they routinely lie in policies that promise not to transfer or re-sell personal data.Well you can't have it both ways: Either a customer data list is a transferable asset with a market value or it's a proprietary asset that must evaporate in the event of a corporate transaction or bankruptcy dissolution.On a philosophical and perhaps legal level, it comes down to who owns the e-relationship -- the shopper or the retailer? As a practical matter the retailer has control, and that's that.So maybe it's necessary to split the difference. Ban reselling of customer data to third parties like list brokers and other outside marketing entities under any circumstance, including liquidation. But permit transfer of whole customer lists as core assets when a corporate merger takes place, with a key caveat: Require an audit-able, voluntary opt-out notification and simple procedure on the part of the acquiring entity. I'd append a rule requiring adherence to the pre-existing privacy policy for two years.This might force the acquirer to align its interests with the best interests of the list members. Win them over with kindness, or lose them forever.This is an off-the-cuff proposal, so I'd invite critics and collaborators to chime in.
  • Posted on: 07/01/2016 lets consumers see inventory at nearby shops

    According to its FAQs, Locally gets its store inventory information by asking participating retailers to transmit SKU# and Quantity data from their POS systems on a daily basis. It's a fairly simple process that can be automated. If the retailer's POS system has an accurate and current tally of stock on hand, this can probably work well.I'm less clear on how well the effort will pay off for retailers, however, since, the model depends on shoppers who first identify desired items, then decide to seek them in nearby shops without concern about prices. Is this a common behavioral pattern? On the plus side, I'm impressed that is designed to interface favorably with search engines. This may be the core advantage for independent retailers.
  • Posted on: 07/01/2016

    Amazon’s Prime Day countdown begins

    Amazon did a bit of slight of hand with its reporting on last summer's Prime Day. Sure there were lots of sales, but the real point was to sign up new Prime members. The payoff was more likely the incremental sales from those Prime members during the following 12 months. At least that is what I'd be tracking if I were their CMO.So why not repeat the promotion again this year? Prime memberships need renewals. New members are desired. Even selling promoted items at cost can deliver a year-long payback.This leaves competing retailers with a bit of a conundrum, unless they are also trying to sell memberships. If Christmas in July is just about selling items, that leaves them out of the lifetime value play.
  • Posted on: 06/27/2016

    Amazon Dash gets a smart button rival

    Kwik and Dash buttons are single-function IoT devices. Imagine using one for every product or service that you buy repeatedly. Taken to the extreme, it would require an entire closet — or ad messages scattered all over your house.Of course buy buttons seem attractive for brands. It's the promise of disintermediation all over again. Looking closer, however, it's really just re-intermediation, substituting a new middle-man for an old one, with a concurrent increase in fulfillment complexity.So I too am in the "stupidest idea ever" camp on these. Sure, a few folks will adopt them for a few items, but while they create apparent simplicity for those selected purchases, they actually expand complexity overall.
  • Posted on: 06/13/2016

    How can online returns be minimized?

    I've always believed that online returns are primarily an issue for the softlines business — much less for grocery and other fast-turning products, and a non-issue for digital media.Instead of puzzling over the best policy for accepting returns, it seems to me that affected retailers should focus on why returns happen. In apparel it's about fit, feel ore color. Better guidance on all three could alleviate a significant amount of returns.I think an opportunity remains for a third party sizing app to match a shopper's personal "shape profile" with garment measurements provided by the e-retail site. Much better than interpreting shopper comments on the web site.For jeans, dresses and shoes in particular, a truly practical "match my fit" tool could improve shopper confidence and satisfaction, and result in fewer returned garments. This would trim a cost center for the retailer and increase net sales, allowing it to maintain liberal return policies for those who honestly need them.
  • Posted on: 06/10/2016

    How do you best engage online shoppers, post-purchase?

    Communication after the sale is essential, but most online marketers screw it up badly.A common mistake is a satisfaction survey that arrives within minutes or hours of the order — long before the item is received. The worst are those "rate my experience" boxes that pop up before you complete the purchase! Nothing says "we're incompetent and really don't care what you might tell us anyway" more than messing up that timing.The corollary to this common mistake is a follow up sales pitch for another item that arrives before the current order is received. Both types of messages are about the seller's wants and needs, not the customer's. Good online retailers need to find ways to turn that dynamic around to put the shopper's total experience first. Programmed auto-response technology can be a boon in this regard, but only if used in a thoughtful manner."Thanks for your order! What do you want to do next?" is a possible way to open the dialog with first time customers. The message should be triggered just after delivery or pickup is confirmed. Options might include, "Help me use this product." "Tell us something you want us to know." "Correct a problem." "Find an item that goes with my purchase." "Join your shopping club." Follow up accordingly with respondents. For returning customers, post-sale communications should be aimed at confirming recognition, expressing appreciation for their repeat patronage and expanding the seller's understanding of the shopper's traits and preferences.This process could also be programmed so that profile details are added over time, but make it easy to reach a human.
  • Posted on: 06/06/2016

    BOPIS needs more work

    Let's face it, what many folks call "BOPIS" is really a variant of the extinct catalog showroom retail model, except with a e-catalog and order form. The old customer experience was pretty uninspiring, as I recall, which may largely explain the demise of Consumer Distributors and Service Merchandise. Modern retailers should be careful not to repeat their mistakes.Click-and-collect is a superior descriptive term that actually has some meaning to shoppers. I think "will-call" might be an even better choice (as in theater tickets). BOPIS means bupkis to them. Let's ditch it, please!Retailers are looking at an opportunity to engineer the will-call experience into a point of competitive advantage. Send the coders on vacation for a few weeks and call in the consumer behaviorists!
  • Posted on: 06/03/2016

    Will drones make Walmart’s DCs hum?

    I absolutely love this story. Drones are little scary out in the wild, but within the controlled confines of the DC they can move rapidly in three dimensions and point a digital eye at every slot in the warehouse.Precision flying is not a big challenge these days, so long as the batteries hold out. The critical factor will be the machine vision application that reliably converts captured images of items into structured data that can be used in the supply chain process.Item recognition has proven maddeningly difficult in the retail store environment, but in the controlled environment of the DC every unit is a rectangular corrugated box with a graphical code on the outside. Piece of cake!I confess I'm a habitual critic of the Great Wal, but in this instance, I think it deserves praise for "outside the boxes" thinking.
  • Posted on: 06/01/2016

    Will food save the mall?

    An upgraded food plaza experience would be welcomed by many enclosed mall shoppers, but I doubt it would generate many "food-first" trips, due to the time it takes to drive, park, walk in and return.Since we're talking about higher-than-fast-food price points here, we might speculate that upscale food vendors might more easily cover the rent, if they can keep up the frequency.For other mall merchants, the positive could be keeping deep-pocketed shoppers in the mall longer, instead of losing them to the Applebee's across the boulevard. At locations with movie multiplexes, it has potential to encourage more date nights.
  • Posted on: 06/01/2016

    SpartanNash hops on the Amazon supply chain bandwagon

    Well I suppose Amazon has to source its grocery products from somewhere. This naturally raises the question: Where has it been obtaining grocery merchandise prior to this announcement? Has anyone checked in with other large grocery wholesalers?I think concerns about Spartan competing with its own customers are possibly overstated in this context. The marketplace is very fluid these days, and Amazon is going to find a way to pursue its interests with or without Spartan's help.The Amazon-buys-Spartan scenario doesn't quite feel realistic for me, since such a deal would come with 160 corporate-owned stores that don't fit smoothly into Amazon's core concept. I'd put my money on Amazon-built D.C.s after a little while.

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