PROFILE

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 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. vsnstrategies.com
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  • Posted on: 03/03/2021

    Will a third-party marketplace step up and give Amazon a run for its money?

    A community can have more than one successful shopping center, so why not have more than one successful online marketplace? Amazon has a huge head start in tech and online traffic, but it can treat its most successful sellers badly -- often knocking off popular innovative products with own-label versions. Its assortment is vast, but it still has many surprising holes (based on my own experience) and its curation is not always on target. Large retailers perceive an opportunity to leverage their existing traffic by inviting other sellers to their own hosted marketplaces. Tenant sellers augment store assortments with a "long tail," while the host retailers provide findability, infrastructure, tech and fulfillment knowhow -- all capabilities big retailers need to advance for their own e-commerce initiatives anyway. Marketplaces are not a remedy for out-of-stock problems (sorry, Mr. Watson), but they can enhance shopper relationships across many other dimensions. Competition among marketplace operators is a good thing -- I foresee deal terms and support will be important aspects of this. I also push back on the notion that marketplaces will be primarily engines for price competition. Of course competitive price optimization will be a core skill set, but with KVI prices more or less at parity, the real competition for share of shopper will come down to experience, service quality and loyalty to the parent brand -- not to mention convenient store order pickup. Here is where Walmart, Target and Kroger have plenty of running room versus Amazon.com.
  • Posted on: 03/02/2021

    Are short-term leases here to stay?

    I have long suspected that long-term retail leases actually lock retailers into suboptimal business strategies. Large chains too frequently keep poor-performing stores open because it is less costly to operate them at a loss than to close them outright. When they elect not to invest in those locations, their brands, their landlords (mall owners) and their fellow tenants suffer too. Longer lease terms mitigate risk in other ways, of course, but the pace of change in our overstored retail marketplace demands flexibility over the illusion of security. Property owners, of course, are stuck with their long-term investments in real-estate. It may be up to them to innovate by creating tenancy options that enable retailers to operate pop-up locations and on-trend store concepts and other attractions with intentional expiration dates. The payoffs could come in the form of higher short-term rates and a more exciting and dynamic retail environment that attracts more frequent shopper visits.
  • Posted on: 02/26/2021

    Is it the right time to reopen food bars?

    I have visited some impressive and appealing food bars in grocery stores, and even some nice-looking executions in Manhattan bodegas. Also popular all-you-can-eat buffets in restaurants. Not to mention buffet-style meal service at some of our industry events. That was all pre-COVID. Now that our consciousness has been altered, I doubt I will ever feed again from a communal trough. Supermarkets may open food bars again, but it seems certain that many shoppers will avoid them for reasons of personal safety and esthetics. Grocers face a choice about how to make the most of the high-value floor space that had been devoted to self-serve bars. I believe the best answer would be a pivot to more serviced food counters behind glass. Grab-and-go pre-packed meals can be held at temperature using some of the same hot-table equipment and coolers. Packed-to-order options can be quickly dispensed by staffers, creating service experiences with a high perceived value. Even click-and-collect orders could be practical -- by linking a "make my own plate" app to an order management system behind the counter. Grocers who attempt to go back to the old paradigm are making a mistake, IMO.
  • Posted on: 02/17/2021

    Has text messaging become retail’s go-to communication tool?

    Opt-in "text clubs" have a multi-year history. The Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) defines how commercial SMS messages are handled, including the ability to opt-out. Compliance is regulated by the FCC. Among prominent SMS marketers, Subway restaurants has operated a text club for many years, which it uses to send out weekly offers to customers. Beyond the promotional angle, there is useful utility for consumers who elect to receive notifications via text, as Tom outlines here. Handled properly, SMS messages provide a means for retailers to maintain connectivity with interested shoppers with a minimal level of intrusion.
  • Posted on: 02/17/2021

    Has text messaging become retail’s go-to communication tool?

    Just reply "STOP" to any text you don't want from a commercial entity.
  • Posted on: 02/17/2021

    Should retailers just say ‘no’ to Instacart?

    Instacart has proven to be the "gateway drug" of choice for grocery operators to rapidly establish a turnkey ecommerce solution. Some retailers have elected not to renew. At least one influential operator has kept the platform, but "white-labeled" the service with its own brand. This is far more than a "build-versus-buy" decision, in my opinion. It's really about finding the best path to adopt a complex of technology and operations innovation that is demanded by today's shoppers. Instacart handles order acceptance and fulfillment but also inserts itself between the retailer and shoppers at a cost. Incidence of missing and substituted items is higher than it should be. This adds friction to the experience which may be attributed to the retailer, not Instacart itself. There are a number of other grocery ecommerce platform vendors out there who provide tech and knowhow, but leave the fulfillment, staging, BOPIS and delivery responsibilities to the retailer. This makes grocery ecommerce accessible to regional and even single-store operators. The largest chains have the means and will to build their own solutions, which may eventually be tightly integrated with loyalty programs and store operations. The risks of unsatisfactory customer service experiences are no less with the latter two options, but at least the retailer interacts directly with shoppers and owns the process and data. Instacart has been bold and smart and it deserves its high profile. I expect it will need to evolve significantly to retain its retailer relationships, however. **Fine job on this analysis, Ms. Masters!
  • Posted on: 02/10/2021

    Will big food brands turn to home-delivered meals to drive future growth?

    Call it instinct, but I feel like Nestlé's announced purchase of Freshly is a signal that the mass-market model for packaged food distribution is due for a pivot. Remember "disintermediation," the buzzword that appeared at the dawn of the dot-com revolution of the late 1990s? The concept was not fully-imagined then, but the desire remains -- brand marketers dream of connecting with shoppers with less reliance upon their retail distributors. Two decades of digital transformation and innovation have brought us to a moment when some brands can and should contemplate consumer-direct models. For fast-moving consumer goods companies like Nestlé the practical challenges remain enormous, but getting into the meal delivery business holds promise as a way to gain deep learning about how to navigate the path between mass production and personalized distribution.
  • Posted on: 02/08/2021

    Will same-day delivery pay off for dollar stores?

    Some of us cranky old retail analysts can remember an era at the end of the last millennium, when any public business could score an immediate boost to their share price by announcing a "dot-com strategy." Right now I get a similar feeling when some retailers announce digital shopping and delivery services. So I guess you can call me a skeptic about this one. Fast delivery does have intrinsic value for some shoppers. I just wonder if those are the same folks who shop at Family Dollar or other dollar store establishments. That can be easily proven by experience. Contracting a third-party order-taking and delivery service offers a way to test interest while controlling capital investment and postponing major changes to store operations. The deeper questions go to fundamental strategy and positioning: Will present FD shoppers opt to pay fees for the convenience of online ordering and delivery? Will this service offering attract more affluent shoppers who have deliberately avoided the store locations (Walmart has reportedly seen some of this effect)? Will FD add higher-ticket items to the long tail of its assortment? Will it invest in mastering the tech to create a proprietary digital shopping platform? Dollar stores stand at the digital crossroads. I'll be watching closely to see if Family Dollar is ready to commit its soul to the transformation.
  • Posted on: 02/08/2021

    Who won this year’s Super Bowl ad contest?

    Lots of these spots are very good, but only the Springsteen micro-movie for Jeep made us say, "Oh wow." It wasn't really a car ad, though -- more like a paean to American mythology. As an unabashed Broooce fan (not from Jersey!) I was glad to see this one. (Yeah Geo, the cowboy had was a bit dissonant for me to.)
  • Posted on: 02/05/2021

    Are U.S. manufacturing sources an absolute necessity for American retailers today?

    Mass retailing, mass marketing, and mass manufacturing have brought incredible access to consumer goods, but the system is ossified. The Paradox of Scale applies here: bigger, further, longer, less agile, and more vulnerable to catastrophe. The COVID event has exposed the brittleness of this approach. As a matter of human economic security, it is imperative that makers and sellers pursue means of producing commodities and products closer to the points of consumption. This is true for crops, manufactured goods, and even energy. Digital technology makes this decentralized-but-networked approach more attainable. Mass-localization also would make our global economic system more resilient and able to withstand adverse events or threats from rivals. For me, "Made in America" matters not due to national hubris, but because it's a healthier way to configure an economy. International trade and sourcing will never go away, but choosing scale over proximity isn't always the best option for retailers or their customers.
  • Posted on: 02/05/2021

    The retail apocalypse didn’t happen last year, despite the coverage

    To borrow a concept from cosmologists: "the retail universe is lumpy." That is, it's uneven; it's not smooth; it's not uniform. What we observe depends on what rock we are standing upon. We are witnessing a true and tragic apocalypse for the independent restaurant trade, concurrent with a massive giddy sales increase for grocery, home center and mass retailers. Like the man said while standing with one bare foot on dry ice and another in the campfire, "But on the average, I'm comfortable." To gain true insight into retail's natural selection, we really need to examine the present state of each "species" of store. This has been my patented screed against summary statistics. They are great for making headlines but terrible for making diagnoses that reflect nuanced understanding. Please pardon the clashing metaphors!
  • Posted on: 02/04/2021

    Is Kroger justified in closing stores over a hero pay ordinance?

    Note that I avoided "hero" and could have substituted "extra" for "hazard" in my comment, Bob. You observe correctly that words are chosen for their emotional/political impact. I exert myself to be thoughtful about that in this forum, as I believe you do. Seems to me the LB City Council would have benefitted from better counsel.
  • Posted on: 02/04/2021

    Where does the chief digital officer fit into retail’s executive team?

    Is anybody else here in this forum growing weary from C-fatigue? Of course retail organizations must elevate digital transformation as a crucial strategic activity. Every functional area of the business is affected -- not just tech and marketing. Handled the wrong way, designating a C-level executive could make internal silos more impenetrable. As Suresh and Gary wisely point out, retail enterprises must consider how to evolve organizational design and ensure that its initiatives add more value, not just more complexity.
  • Posted on: 02/04/2021

    Is Kroger justified in closing stores over a hero pay ordinance?

    My first reaction when I heard this story was sadness. The City of Long Beach seems not to have thought through all the consequences of its ordinance. Kroger's announcement feels like grandstanding. Store employees are caught in the crossfire. Kroger evidently has used this news event as cover for the closure of two poor-performing locations. Not its finest moment. The additional pay proposed in Long Beach adds up to $2,743 per FTE over four months. Is that enough hazard pay to compensate an employee who contracts the COVID-19 virus in the workplace?
  • Posted on: 02/04/2021

    GameStop hires Amazon, Chewy and QVC vets to transform its business

    Recent headlines notwithstanding, GameStop's business model requires a complete reimagining if the the company hopes to remain relevant. A shift to digital is likely a core aspect of this. New leadership might help -- if they have the mandate and the courage to take dramatic action.

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