PROFILE

James Tenser

Retail Tech Marketing Strategist | B2B Expert Storytelling™ Guru | President, VSN Media LLC

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 RetailWire.com, Advertising Age, Progressive Grocer, CPGmatters.com, Supermarket News, and his blog, TensersTirades.com.

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.

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  • Posted on: 07/21/2021

    Have indie bookstores found answers to counter Amazon?

    Amazon's platform is so "search and transact" oriented that it leaves open space for the curation, atmosphere and service that physical bookstores provide. I think there is a lane for independents -- especially in denser urban settings. Going online with a platform like Bookstore.org may not drive massive incremental sales volume, but it provides the high-caliber digital services expected by existing customers.
  • Posted on: 07/20/2021

    Is it time for retailers to reinstate pandemic protocols?

    Yes, mask-wearing and distancing should remain the cultural norm in all retail spaces if the pandemic science is our prime consideration. Retailers don't have the ability to enforce this standard unilaterally, however. They need "cover" like the L.A. County mandate. For that matter, L.A. County could use some cover too -- clear guidelines from the State level and above. The more uniform the standard, the better for retailers whose footprints cover multiple jurisdictions. Of course, the obstacle is political will. Every mandate harms someone and leaders are reluctant to be perceived as the direct cause. It has proven easier to accept indirect harm from the virus because it diffuses the blame. Retailers ultimately serve the entire population, including vaccine skeptics and opponents of masks. It can't be comfortable to exclude those individuals at the store level, and it is patently unfair to ask staffers to enforce such rules. Hero pay is not a great answer any more. We know how to keep employees reasonably safe from the bug. Retailers just can't overcome our wider political failures with even the most proactive policies.
  • Posted on: 07/19/2021

    Is the Walmart/Justice tie-up a harbinger of more retailer brand partnerships?

    Walmart has vast distribution power and wants compelling brands to sell. Justice has brand fans in its demographic, but lacks a distribution network. Seems like a good match, but one that is likely to have a limited life cycle. There is plenty of precedent for exclusive brand distribution in mass merchants and department stores. Calling this one a "partnership" doesn't change the fundamentals much. It will be interesting to track how much co-marketing activity is devoted to the Justice brand and whether Walmart positions it as a BTS reason to shop.
  • Posted on: 07/15/2021

    What does it take to successfully rent customers on social commerce platforms?

    Don't pull your punches, Paula! Consumers "own" the retailer relationships and they always have. Affective and behavioral loyalty are indeed as ephemeral as butterflies, which means adept use of social discovery and social commerce can be effective ways to pry shoppers loose. With that in mind, Jason is correct that the CLV equation may vary greatly depending upon the type of purchase. Many products don't naturally lend themselves to frequent repeat buys, so preference must be earned again at each occasion. Staying top-of-mind between those moments of truth requires creation of continuous opportunities to see. Social media can be a cost-effective way for brands to accomplish that.
  • Posted on: 07/15/2021

    Will retailers and brands pay a steep price for greenwashing?

    Many retailers talk the talk when it comes to environmental responsibility. Far fewer walk the walk. The best way to turn sincere intent into meaningful action is to measure the impact of initiatives and publish the results:
    • If a retailer reduces shrink by adopting inventory optimization practices, that certainly improves their profits, but how much waste and energy use is eliminated in the process?
    • If a retailer re-designs its private-label packaging to eliminate use of non-recyclable plastics, what is the net impact in terms of carbon, landfill space, and impact on the oceans?
    • If a big box retailer installs photovoltaics on all its store rooftops, how many kilowatt hours of electricity would it generate? How much can air conditioning costs be trimmed when the panels cast shade on the buildings?
    • If a huge digital retailer ;) advances a proactive program to collect and recycle corrugated shipping cartons, how many millions of trees can be saved?
    In the absence of facts about their outcome, these stories are "greenwashing." When their impact is measured, indexed and shared, the same stores are proof that consumers can rely upon when deciding where to shop.
  • Posted on: 07/14/2021

    When will predictive models become more predictable?

    In the Incredible Dissolving Store, predictive models can handcuff decision making by locking the organization into a finite set of assumptions based on inward-looking, historical trends. If adaptation to emergent market conditions requires that the model be re-constructed by human beings, that's a huge watch-out. Business forecasting remains an essential discipline, but errors can become systematic and recursive -- as when poor inventory data results in worse space, assortment, and pricing decisions, which in turn undermine the integrity of the demand signal. There is a role here for AI and machine learning to enable better and faster decision making. Models based on data-mining (versus human designed "algorithms") have potential to enable faster response to market shifts and more accurate predictions. The critical factors for forecasting may lie outside the enterprise. One may imagine that the critical indicator for a merchandising decision may be a trend detected on social media. Much more predictive than sales history from your POS.
  • Posted on: 07/14/2021

    Will ending non-competes be good for retail workers and their bosses?

    With only a few exceptions, non-compete agreements should be outlawed as they are not "agreements," but a one-sided imposition of employer power. The exceptions are important, however, for associates in highly strategic areas such as R&D, new product development, cyber security, and corporate strategy. For many of those folks, non-disclosure agreements may suffice instead. For others, non-competes may be justifiable, but exclusivity must have a price. It should be part of an employment contract that protects the employee and have reasonable time limits. I'd venture that 99% of retail workers should never be asked to sign a non-compete clause in exchange for their jobs. Any retail employer that wants to attract and keep the best associates should avoid them.
  • Posted on: 07/01/2021

    Is the food delivery bubble ready to burst?

    To be clear, meal delivery and grocery delivery are two different things. I am certain that grocery delivery will continue to gain ground, with steady investment from the grocers themselves. The present business model for third-party meal delivery is unsustainably flawed, in my opinion, with fees much higher than the profit margins earned by the restaurants themselves. So I am generally in agreement with Mr. Boley's article. This is a trend inflated by slack investor due diligence and hype. Here in Tucson, AZ the concern over high delivery fees has raised enough concern that the mayor and city council capped fees at 15 percent last October. Interesting to see how other municipalities have taken similar steps. The fees offend me enough that I personally have opted to support my favorite restaurateurs by opting for contactless pick-up.
  • Posted on: 06/28/2021

    Can AI solve e-grocery’s erratic out-of-stock substitutions?

    Using fancy tech to make ecommerce item substitutions better is wallpaper covering the real source of the problem -- poor inventory intelligence. Retailers must get store (and dark store) inventories right. Maintain a reliable perpetual inventory and forecast (here is where AI might be pretty useful). Incorporate both in-store and digital demand in the process. Inventory intelligence should make stock-outs exceedingly rare so that substitutions are even rarer. Don't institutionalize an awful customer experience by using an imperfect AI to make substitutions marginally better. Make them go away instead.
  • Posted on: 06/23/2021

    Is ‘Buy Local’ fatigue setting in?

    The intent of "buy local" is laudable, but its execution often leaves much to be desired. It's not enough to appeal to the sympathies of shoppers and diners to drive sales. Independent operators must stay competitive and differentiate with relevant merchandising and personal service. Not to mention competitive prices. None of this is easy, of course. Simply hiring trustworthy sales associates can be a frustrating challenge, as we have addressed here several times. The other facet of "buy local" is the purchase of products that are sourced from the local economy. These may be stocked in chain stores that allow area managers some merchandising discretion, or by locally owned merchants. Some of these products may command sweeter margins compared with "national" brands, but boutique producers can struggle to maintain reliable levels of supply. I believe shoppers with a degree of discretion in their household budgets are still likely to look favorably upon local products and independent shops where they are available and of good quality. This has only a little to do with the COVID crisis and much to do with local pride and community interest.
  • Posted on: 06/23/2021

    Forget digital first. Stores first, digital second is the future of luxury retail.

    Well it's certainly evident that the future of LMVH brands lies in putting the physical experience first. Their very successful strategy is not the model strategy for every retailer, however. Retail is an industry of infinite variations and any generalization like that of M. Guiony cannot be universal. I find discussions about "what's right for retail" to be quite frustrating in this regard. Even the deluxe brands of LMVH have extended their presence to the digital realm, where customers can encounter them first if they so choose. Successful born-for-the-web brands often take an opposite path, adding physical stores selectively to buttress their brand positioning and establish a service standard -- even if relatively few customers ever experience it. I'd submit that the future of retailing lies in the physical-digital "cross-ruff" (to borrow a term from the card game Bridge). Every brand and class of retailer must determine the correct balance of emphasis according to their brand proposition and shopper preferences.
  • Posted on: 06/22/2021

    Does retail have an answer for its jobs problem?

    Retailers: Absolutely pay a living wage and stop whining about your thin margins. It's a competitive business, so find better ways to compete! But that's not nearly enough. Spirit-killing work environments and systematic disempowerment of staff in the name of "efficiency" are not only dehumanizing HR policy, they rot your businesses from the inside. There is a ton of academic literature that demonstrates why well satisfied workers deliver a far superior customer experience and fiscal outcomes. Satisfied workers are fairly compensated, empowered to perform their jobs well, and able to see how their daily efforts contribute to personal, customer, team and organizational success. The alternative -- treating workers as interchangeable cogs in the machinery -- creates the chronic employee turnover that retailers and restaurateurs are complaining about. Since frequent hiring is very costly, do the math. Making your jobs more desirable could well be the path to superior overall performance and greater shopper esteem.
  • Posted on: 06/18/2021

    Will Americans invite Best Buy into their backyards?

    I see Best Buy's intent to expand its offering to encompass outdoor appliances and electronics as entirely consistent with its core offering of indoor appliances and electronics. Backyard living rooms are a greatly desired home improvement these days -- often incorporating flat screens and sound systems along with grilling, kitchen, fire features, and seating. If Best Buy can provide high quality planning, installation and troubleshooting services for outdoor spaces, it will expand its appeal and score well with this strategy.
  • Posted on: 06/18/2021

    Retailers must centralize their data to thrive

    When dealing with decisions based on aggregate consumer demand, it makes intuitive sense to centralize data. But store level merchandising depends on granular analysis, not averages or chain-wide norms. That means all ordering and many promotion decisions should be made and implemented at the "edge" -- as close as possible to actual shoppers. Each store must be uniquely optimized. This is not an argument against a "single version of the truth" which remains an essential goal for retail managers. Of course data integrity and democratized access across the organization are critical necessities. Pooling all an organization's data into a single lake can well enable this. Care must be taken, however, to preserve the specificity that enables valid store-level and sometimes even shopper-level decisions. Certainly retailers must tear down silos and provide mechanisms for decision makers to access all data relevant to their missions. This may be accomplished via an AI-enabled query system, even if certain data remain in their existing repositories.
  • Posted on: 06/14/2021

    UPS entry could even the same-day delivery playing field

    UPS could certainly try to develop a separate local, point-to-point rapid service that enables delivery within hours, but it would have to bypass regional distribution centers to make it happen. The key enabler (as Amazon and Target/Shipt understand well) is the ability to fulfill high-demand items from locations close to the delivery points. Since UPS does not stock goods in retail stores or fulfillment centers of its own, my money is on an acquisition of a service like DoorDash or Postmates.

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