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: 09/19/2019

    What is retail’s role in building a better society?

    Stores are local. They rise and fall with the communities they serve. Many do good works out of a sense of pride, others out of "enlightened self-interest." Chains are remote. Some may regard "corporate social responsibility" as a shareholder value checkbox for their annual report. Others may bake CSR into their essential culture out of genuine belief. There's a spectrum of ways that retailers can have a positive effect, ranging from straight-forward charity, to hiring and compensation policies, to merchandising choices, to environmental practices, and more. These decisions may influence brand reputation and ultimately shopper loyalty. As a confirmed cynic, I tend to believe that economic interest usually drives retailers to adopt socially constructive policies. That's OK with me. Sometimes in an organization purity of intent can emerge as the result of positive actions, even if they are undertaken for selfish reasons.
  • Posted on: 09/11/2019

    Will multistory warehouses mean faster deliveries from Amazon, Home Depot and others?

    When I read the headline for this discussion, my first mental image was of a tall 3-dimensional space, with a smaller footprint that uses conveyors/robots to move items in and out of trailers and slots with great rapidity. Ron Margulis describes something similar in his comment here. But the video portrays a stack of separate flat warehouse spaces with loading doors on three levels and vehicle ramps that (to me) resemble those outside New York's Port Authority bus terminal. More expensive to build, I'm sure, than the flat, sprawling, million-square-foot Target and Amazon distribution centers here on the outskirts of Tucson. Putting the D.C. closer to (or within) an urban center may help shave minutes off home delivery times and worker commutes. It may add minutes to the access time of the big trucks. I presume the designers have run the numbers and are satisfied with the trade-off.
  • Posted on: 08/30/2019

    Target leans on vendors in trade war

    Retailers have a long tradition of pressuring suppliers to absorb external cost increases. I recall a past incident when the price of sugar surged (in the 90s?), retailers pushed back on accepting increased candy prices. The current tariff wars present a scenario where retailers have reason to put pressure not just on their U.S. based importers, but on their overseas manufacturers, especially in China. Forcing factories to share the pain is one way to spread the consequences across all parties. A tough stance, but perhaps the hue and cry will help push the governments in question to back off the insanity.
  • Posted on: 08/30/2019

    Social media antics cause grief at Walmart, Target, Home Depot, others

    Wow this really brings out the "old man" knee jerk response in me. While a criminal prosecution crackdown on pranking behavior might sound tempting, I'd prefer to see affected retailers pursue a civil route. Why not sue the perpetrators for the economic damage caused by the prank? Demand treble damages, since the actions are willful, planned attempts to profit at the retailer's expense. A 15-year old might skate on criminal mischief, but highly publicized stories about civil judgments could have a chilling effect on bad behavior. Actions should have consequences. Go after their YouTube profits.
  • Posted on: 08/20/2019

    Is technology really making stores more like the web?

    At the dawn of the dot-com era, the operative question was "Can we make the web like a store?" Twenty-five years later, digital shopping methods have advanced in sophistication and retail stores are trying to adjust their methods to satisfy shopper expectations that have been altered by online and mobile experiences. While most retailers offer some combination of physical and digital shopping today, the goal should not be to create a uniform experience at every touch point: Online assortments can be much larger, for example ("endless aisle"). Stores are better suited for browsing, examination, and shopping. Web sites are better for search, feature and price comparison. Mobile sites are better for speedy, straight-up ordering. Retailers are using technology to make stores more like the web from an operational perspective. In-store sensing has potential to illuminate store conditions with the same level of visibility and detail as is now routine for online stores. Instead of page views and clicks, measurements of demand by store, inventory conditions by store, messaging and promotion response, employee actions, and shopper behaviors can all flow into an intelligence engine that enables retailers to monitor and tweak performance. The store of the future is a communications environment that is monitored at a granular level and continually optimized for shopper benefit. Great store experiences will surely follow, but they will not be more like shopping online.
  • Posted on: 08/14/2019

    Can H-E-B win the autonomous delivery vehicle race in Texas?

    So much of the autonomous delivery research so far has been focused on maneuvering the vehicle from store to curb without killing anyone. This is no mean feat, but the solutions tend to overlook the loading/unloading part. What about the last 10 yards? Paco is spot on -- delivery robots (whether vehicles or "sidewalk" scooters) must be co-developed with the residences they serve. If you can't get the items upstairs to my apartment, what good is a delivery? Now ... if my home had a "portal" installed where the bot could discharge its load unattended, that would be a thing. Another too-often ignored factor will be the "taxi-versus-bus-route" delivery format. Delivering an individual order is time and energy inefficient (taxi). Sending a vehicle on a pre-scheduled (bus) route to cover a neighborhood offers significant logistical and cost advantages. Will autonomous vehicles be clever enough to handle bus routes? HEB's venture is intriguing but also fraught with technical, practical, liability and legal questions. Saving on delivery driver wages is an incentive, but I'm not yet convinced that's enough of an offsetting benefit.
  • Posted on: 08/13/2019

    Have emojis become digital’s ice breaker for consumers?

    Emojis are an emerging specialized form of writing that may be compared with ideograms in some ways. Unlike an alphabet that represents sounds, emojis represent things, concepts, ideas and of course emotions. They have the unique trait of functioning well within digital communications, but not in hand-written communications or speech. I suspect emojis are going to stick around, evolve, and become more stylized as they become an extension to our writing system. Grammar and usage standards will follow, and schoolteachers will be tasked with teaching the next generation the rules. (Oy!) From a media ecology perspective this is an important development. Like other communications technologies, emojis enable a different kind of thought. They can be very efficient in conveying meaning. They may be recognized and interpreted by humans who speak many different native languages. Marketing pros need to master this new extension to representative language and learn how to put it to use. I suspect 3019 emojis are not going to be enough.
  • Posted on: 08/13/2019

    Grocers develop their own tech responses to Amazon Go

    Building on Kenneth Leung's great observation here today about "multi-modal checkout" in grocery, I think we must also ask the question, "in what retail formats and trips?" By that I mean Amazon Go is a convenience store, not a supermarket. It caters to a certain kind of transaction that fits the "grab and go" concept well. Eliminating checkout friction during the lunch rush adds significant value. Shifting the scanning task to the shopper for a full-basket grocery order is not eliminating friction -- it is transferring it from the front end to the aisle. Price-lookup items like produce are going to especially clumsy in this regard. Has anyone carefully studied whether any time is actually saved? Maybe it's all about perception. I would counsel grocers to study this proposition hard. True, there is great pressure to offer services that match best experiences anywhere. Perhaps a grab-and-go option should be on the "multi-modal" table for supermarkets, but the benefits may be elusive.
  • Posted on: 08/13/2019

    Grocers develop their own tech responses to Amazon Go

    Smartest comment here today, Kenneth. Everybody else take heed: "Multi-modal checkout" could dominate this conversation very soon.
  • Posted on: 08/13/2019

    Is Nike’s new subscription program for kids a parent’s best friend?

    Nike Adventure Club is a luxury service that will appeal to a narrow niche audience. It wins points for creativity and it may succeed with some parents who have more money than time, but I imagine many of their kids will be indifferent. For the families that can afford $240 -- $600 a year for several kids, I am skeptical that the Club will be their only way of buying footwear. Less upscale households will likely find better ways to get their kicks.
  • Posted on: 08/12/2019

    Nike to marry predictive analytics and RFID to optimize inventory performance

    Many facets to consider regarding Nike's acquisition of Celect and it's very cool inventory solution. Within its 1,100 owned retail locations worldwide, there is little doubt that forecasting and optimizing store-level inventory levels is highly desirable. But Nike products are distributed through tens of thousands of other retailers. It's not as clear to me how it will apply predictive analytics to help those distributor locations. I suppose Nike could tell those stores "here's what our AI says you get in your next order," retailers may have their own ideas about what their shoppers want, however. Item-level RFID is pretty well-suited for Nike-type merchandise, and predictive analytics can be a game changer for many types of fashion and apparel products. The benefits would roll up the supply chain to influence factory order quantities and assortment decisions.
  • Posted on: 08/08/2019

    Has the starting point of customer journeys moved?

    I've probably said this here before, but the "path to purchase" always looks linear when you start from the sale and look backwards. This is a common fallacy among marketers. Pinpointing its point of origin, however, is seldom as straightforward. I suppose you might say the customer journey all begins in the womb. I know that sounds glib, but I'm trying to make the point that the diagram of the path to purchase is not a line, but a tree. Better yet, a tangle of interconnecting, looping vines. This sometimes means that the seeds of a "want" or "need" may be planted and lie dormant for years before they are surfaced by a triggering event. These instances are very difficult for marketers to pinpoint. Attribution has always been hard. It's getting worse as the digital era has expanded the moments of influence exponentially. Against that backdrop it becomes even more important to establish and maintain the integrity and reputation of the brand. Maybe that's the real starting point for the customer meander.
  • Posted on: 08/07/2019

    Walmart trains quarterly for active shooter events

    This is one of the most important and disheartening topics of our age in the retail business. Of course Walmart and other retailers must provide "active shooter" training to employees. At very least the knowledge and awareness may help preserve some lives. Since there are more Walmart stores, employees and store visits than any other retailer, it's statistically likely that these violent acts will happen more often on their premises than any other chain. Like it or not, that puts the company "in the cross-hairs" with respect to taking a lead on defining new safety practices. I wonder if Walmart -- or other retail and mall operators -- have considered creating "safe room" type spaces within their premises. How about adding reinforced walls and doors to back-room areas where staff and shoppers could shelter in place? What about a "panic button" app on their store-issued mobile devices to more rapidly inform authorities? I'm no security expert, but the example of the El Paso Walmart employee who shepherded dozens of shoppers to shelter within steel shipping containers located behind the building seems like a bit of inspiration. Training should incorporate real-life examples of quick-thinking solutions like this from past tragedies. And it must be repeated often or even be included in on-boarding, considering the high rate of employee turnover.
  • Posted on: 08/07/2019

    Walmart trains quarterly for active shooter events

    That's truly a sad reality, Paula. I guess people in his situation will need to text customers "I'm in front of your home with your food. Please don't shoot!"
  • Posted on: 07/31/2019

    Are store robots cute, creepy – or nearly useless?

    Inventory-scanning robots that can take a reliable read of stock on hand and planogram compliance are coming, but it's not yet clear to me how soon the tech will be accurate enough and cost-effective enough. It comes down to machine vision technology that is extremely complex. I worked with pioneering company in the Silicon Valley more than 10 years ago that tried to tackle this challenge. Here's some stuff they learned:
    • The cameras need very high image resolution and very fast image analyses to accurately identify an individual item by its shape, size and label information. The system must match each item with its shelf label and/or planogram location to determine on-shelf availability status.
    • It's very hard to distinguish between packages that contain the same item but in different flavors.
    • Flat boxes and round cans arranged up to 12 deep on the shelf are "eclipsed" by the item in front, so robot eyes are challenged to deliver an accurate item count.
    • It's even harder to identify and count items in bags and pouches that have shiny, uneven surfaces that reflect light.
    • Soft line products are very tricky to identify by style, size and color. Imagine a rack full of sweaters that have been handled by shoppers.
    • An array of dozens of cameras is needed to view the merchandise from many angles at once so as to capture enough information for the system to positively identify items on the shelf.That's why a bulky six-foot tall machine is required to scan a grocery aisle.
    All of this means the device "on the edge" - the robot itself - must carry considerable processing and machine intelligence power on board. It has to work accurately while it is in motion. Data for thousands of items must be collected rapidly and communicated to an even more awesome central computer that can parse the data into actionable form. So ... Store inventory robots are not a trivial challenge. In supermarkets, terror about out-of-stocks is driving experimentation even though the economics are not yet proven. The hardware and AI are certainly getting better, but I think the length of the (machine) learning curve has been underestimated by stakeholders.

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