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 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: 12/14/2017

    Target to make same-day delivery push with Shipt acquisition

    Target's decision to buy Shipt may amount to putting the delivery cart before the fulfillment horse.While it's a bold step, rapid store fulfillment and delivery is not without peril. Will shoppers be willing to pay the tab for this costly form of service? Will in-store fulfillment allow for a high-level of reliability and confidence? Taking an order is easy; delivering on the promise is hard.I can't endorse this decision until I feel assured that Target has a firm grasp on store-level inventory optimization -- and the ability to port real-time, store-item availability data into the online/mobile ordering interface. Shipt has no particular expertise in this area. It will fall to Target to make the connectivity happen.Despite these concerns, I like where Target is attempting to go with its acquisition of Shipt. It's great to see them jump into the competitive fray with other market leaders.
  • Posted on: 12/12/2017

    Will meal kits be a hit on Walmart’s virtual shelves?

    Physical retailers like Walmart have an opportunity to sidestep the subscription commitment issue that probably contributes to high customer churn at online meal kit marketers like Blue Apron and others. "I want my meal kits when I want them -- not when the service tells me I do." But exposure to varied and interesting menu choices can provide consumers with an extra reason to visit grocery stores, especially at the end of the workday. This goes well beyond the "meal solutions" cross-merchandising concepts that were introduced in the 1990s.Retailers could use SMS text messaging and/or mobile apps to share daily menu alerts with opt-in shoppers. They might even take reservations for grab-and-go orders. This is a realm where I think store pickup could beat delivery plans. Walmart is smart to jump on the bandwagon.
  • Posted on: 12/08/2017

    Is a tiered dollar menu the ticket for McDonald’s?

    McDonald's announced $1-$2-$3 menu structure could have the advantage of simplifying order decisions for many customers, especially at the drive-through, where seconds count.Franchisees seek to up profits in two ways -- improve margins and increase transactions. The latter matters especially during the morning-coffee and lunch-crunch periods of the day, when the drive-up window can be a choke point in the sales process. That's why some McD's stores (and plenty of other fast-food locations) have doubled their drive-up lanes. It's all about the throughput.So yes, the new prices are partly a response to meal deal pricing by competitive chains, but I see an operational side too -- how do we serve more customers faster?
  • Posted on: 12/07/2017

    The RetailWire Christmas Commercial Challenge: H&M vs. Gap

    The Gap's cheery musical performance wins out over H&M's charming but dark fable. The former is an ad; the latter a story-driven moviette.The moviette phenomenon seems to be worthy of commentary in the context of the RW Christmas Commercial Challenge. We've seen a few others like this over the years. This season, Macy's "Lighthouse" spot fits the definition. No doubt they are costly to produce and air — and therefore profitable for the agencies that create them. Most moviettes, as others here observe, are destined for online viewing, not broadcast.So how are we to regard this genre of holiday ads? Moviettes can be self-indulgent, yes. But in the holiday spirit, I prefer to regard them as little gifts from the brand to the shopping public. If a few manage to "go viral" that's a form of validation. If holiday sales surge measurably as a result, that's a justification.
  • Posted on: 12/06/2017

    Dollar General is betting on the continuing decline of the middle class

    Thrift is a universal value for American consumers at every economic stratum. Dollar stores cater to this need by providing products at low price points; club stores do it by providing products with higher price points, but attractive unit costs. Many other retail formats try to capture slices of household consumption driven by alternative definitions of value -- brand, status, convenience, assortment, promotions.Dollar General's approach may be a tad cold-hearted, but there's no denying that it's responsive to market reality and well-managed. In mass retail, it's smart to target the demographic bulge. If that happens to consist of folks who can just afford the four-pack of toilet paper before payday, then don't fault the retailer.I can't say I'd advise most "big middle" retailers to shift downscale, but it may make sense for some to stock a few more smaller packs or more basic items that are within the budgets of lower-income households. It could be the key to keeping more trips.
  • Posted on: 12/01/2017

    Will click & collect finally compel retailers to remodel stores?

    Re-imagination of retail formats is a huge issue in the era of digital retail. Order-staging is a primary area for operational innovation. It requires completely fresh thinking about how self-service retail environments can be configured coexist with picking and pickup.Nikki, this is one of your best observations in recent memory. The time is nigh for retailers of all stripes to revisit store concepts from the floor tiles up. Unfortunately, I expect that many will first try and fail to address Click & Collect challenges with software and employee training. Both are necessary, but they will not be sufficient if attempted within retail environments that have not been overhauled to serve modern shopper expectations.Click & Collect is a promise most can't afford not to make, but it hikes operating costs. Wise retailers will configure their physical stores to help offset this challenge.
  • Posted on: 11/30/2017

    It’s good to be Home Depot

    Sounds like a disconnect persists between humans and machines. The web page seems to reveal that the right data table exists. (There may even be a method to the madness of assigning two separate numbers to each item.) But if customer-facing personnel are unable to leverage that to the shopper's advantage during a product return, then there's still work to do.Certainly searching store inventories online has very little to do with the returns process. Eliminating problems like the one you encountered seems like a two-pronged effort involving better tools at the POS and better training for associates.
  • Posted on: 11/30/2017

    It’s good to be Home Depot

    It's not "buy-online-pickup-in-store" that wins my greatest praise for Home Depot. It's "check-inventory-online-buy-in-store" (CIOBIS?). I don't know how to emphasize this enough, but I'll try:When in the midst of a weekend project, Murphy's DIY Corollary firmly states that the critical part or tool needed to complete the job today will NOT be on hand in your home workshop. One-click ordering won't solve this dilemma unless you are willing to wait until the following weekend to complete the task. You need the item within the hour. The most efficient solution is to confirm it's in stock at a nearby store, run out and pick it up.Only a retailer with a firm handle on store-level perpetual inventory and a tight digital linkage between Web and stores can accommodate this type of urgent need. Home Depot has its act together in this regard.Need a specific branded replacement part for a kitchen faucet? Check the website to determine if one's available at your local store, or failing that, another across town. Holy crap -- the site tells you how many are on hand and the aisle and bay number location! [FYI Ken, the web page shows both the store SKU# and the internet item #.]When it comes to CIOBIS, Home Depot has very few peers -- Lowe's comes close and Best Buy is pretty decent too. How many other retailers can say they have mastered this essential capability for unified retailing?
  • Posted on: 11/22/2017

    The RetailWire Christmas Commercial Challenge Global Edition – Debenhams vs. House of Fraser

    I'd give the Debenham's spot an edge in this face-off, based mainly on how it modernizes a familiar part of the Cinderella story with a social media trope. It's got a storyline at least, although it's far from sales-y.The House of Fraser commercial wins points for its ironic use of a lesser-known R&B classic song. I had to watch it twice to grasp the story arc about sisters, but I didn't mind so much because I enjoyed hearing the music.
  • Posted on: 11/21/2017

    The RetailWire Christmas Commercial Challenge: Big Lots vs. Kohl’s

    In this Joy competition, Big Lots wins based on its upbeat emotional content. The inter-cuts of what look like mobile phone video clips were a nice touch too.Kohl's concept is far more creative, but I really don't want to be reminded that holiday shopping is a battle that leaves me fundamentally disappointed with a handful of scrip.
  • Posted on: 11/21/2017

    Will Ocado’s robots help U.S. grocers solve their online delivery problems?

    Ocado is a fascinating study in online grocery tech, but it has put all its eggs in the centralized fulfillment and delivery basket. No click and collect here. Automating the picking process with a robotic "hive" follows naturally from that choice, but it's evidently capital intensive.We've seen a similar movie before -- when Webvan constructed a massive automated fulfillment center in the East Bay area across from San Francisco. Only this time the automation mechanism is robotics; last time it was computerized conveyor systems.Ocado's model has potential in densely populated markets, where delivery vans travel short distances and make multiple stops before returning empty over short distances. This could disqualify it from many U.S. markets, where distances and geographic obstacles like bridges may mean long, unprofitable drives home by empty vans. The investment required to build a robotic "hive" is a leap of faith about which many grocers should be wary. How may orders must be filled and delivered to earn enough incremental profits to pay off the mortgage?As a self-professed retail tech nerd, I love learning about Ocado's brave attempt and I'm rooting for them to deliver the economic model that proves my skepticism wrong.
  • Posted on: 11/20/2017

    How open are consumers to AI-driven shopping?

    Jason, you are so right about lack of rigor in "stated preference" research. Consumers are rarely in a position to answer accurately about their intent -- especially regarding a consumption method that is new or untried.Population experience with cognitive technologies is still very limited, and the privacy-personalization tradeoff remains unclear, even after 20 years of speculation and experimentation.But anxiety about personal privacy is real, and the risks are underscored many times a day for each of us -- whether in news stories about data breaches or in the online banner ads that seem to stalk us across the internet.I'd argue, however, that AI cannot and should not be invisible and behind the curtain. Rather, I'd advocate a principle of complete transparency, revealed not in the depths of "terms of use" statements, but reinforced in the user interface itself. Ideally, every application of AI must answer this question to qualify: "How does this innovation give customers more confidence and control?"
  • Posted on: 11/20/2017

    Who will be left standing after the next retail shakeout?

    This observation is spot on, as others in this thread have observed. While quite thought-provoking, and worthwhile, Mr. Peterson's 3-part taxonomy doesn't fulfill the MECE principle (Mutually Exclusive, Collectively Exhaustive). The concept of "Third Wave" is really a catch-all category that covers various aspects of the retail experience.But rhetorical issues aside, I appreciate the intent of this analysis. Retail innovators with clear positioning, who focus on a recognized customer need or preference, will always create opportunities to chip market share away from the retail giants who gravitate inevitably toward the "big middle."Price and any-channel convenience remain must-have competencies for retailers of all stripes. Assortment, store concept, positioning, customization, advice, and services are differentiators. Chain stores should do continuous navel-gazing within their departments to assess whether they can leverage or build a reputation around being "best-at" one or more of these dimensions.
  • Posted on: 11/15/2017

    The RetailWire Christmas Commercial Challenge: Macy’s vs. Nordstrom

    The Macy's ad continues what by now has become a holiday retailer tradition of producing sentimental mini-movies to mark the season. I agree with others here that its tone is sober, almost bleak. It's a sweet little gift to the audience, true, but I don't find it very motivational.The Nordstrom spot is about holiday cheer-i-ness. As a thank-you card from the associates, it succeeds somewhat, so I'd give it the edge.
  • Posted on: 11/15/2017

    Yes, retailers can also reward non-transactional behaviors

    While I too wish for a clearer argument here, I absolutely agree with the premise that rewards programs could set wider sights than just points-for-purchases.The issue is how. One possibility is to reward involvement: Say we offer one point per dollar spent on purchases and 10 points for each product review or customer question answered. We're likely to attract some "serial reviewers" with this schema, but the value calculation should become clear in short order. But this is involvement after the fact.Pre-purchase is a bit trickier to visualize, for me. Points for viewing product videos is one possibility, although some folks might try to hack this process by viewing everything, every day. It could get simpler than this -- a points bounty simply for logging on to the website or walking into the physical store with the app activated."Refer a friend" is another option I've seen used recently for meal kit subscriptions, with a cash credit as the reward. (I'm not sure how many folks will stay friends afterward, however.)In general, we should be skeptical of any point-earning process that adds a lot of complexity for shoppers. The objective, I think, is to reward loyalty, not test it.

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