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: 05/23/2019

    Are retail HQs and stores suffering a communication breakdown?

    This is an opportune moment to restate a persistent issue I call The Paradox of Scale: "The larger the retailer, the more remote it is from its customers." This remoteness problem applies equally to employees on the front lines. Too many retailers make the tragic mistake of focusing on managing the workforce with commands from the top instead of pushing more decisions out to store workers and enabling them to succeed. Mobile devices can certainly be a useful piece of the communications solution, but flooding store workers with text messages is far from a panacea. Digitizing poorly-designed business practices merely enables them to fail faster while sowing worker discontent. Where better In-Store Implementation is the objective, management must first consider how the work can get done better with the benefit of digital signals and direct feedback. Then engineer practices (and apps) to make compliance easier, more accurate and more efficient. If you fail to enable employees to gauge their own performances using the same tools, you miss an essential opportunity.
  • Posted on: 05/21/2019

    How should retailers raise prices to offset tariffs?

    One relevant lesson from the world of price optimization may be that pricing is a portfolio-based discipline. Some items are more sensitive than others and retailers need to make informed decisions about where to find margin and where to sacrifice it. There may be good reasons to swallow some or all of a cost increase on certain known value items, while adding a few pennies on other lower-profile items to achieve an overall profit return and maintain the desired price image. Right now tariff wars are the primary source of this pressure. In other eras, rising oil or commodity prices have been the culprit. Retailers have always made -- and will always make -- adjustments like this. That said, I stand in solidarity with the position taken by the NRF in opposition to the present tariffs. Ultimately the end-user pays -- for both the amount of the tariffs and the operational cost of adapting to them.
  • Posted on: 05/17/2019

    Do treasure hunt experiences provide the key to discounters’ fortunes?

    I feel the need to echo Paula (again!), as her observations about "the cost of running a physical establishment" reveal that she understands far more about the economics of retailing than The Balance. Of course the costs of running stores are partly offset by their distribution efficiencies, while the costs of remote fulfillment and individual deliveries add costs to each transaction that are not subject to economies of scale. With that off my chest, let me also add my voice to the chorus here that recognizes how stores enable a discovery experience that is not possible in the digital world. Cheap, low quality goods are never "treasures," but good brands at discounted prices can be. TJX and DSW both understand this and they execute wonderfully. Ditto Stein Mart and Tuesday Morning. Treasure-hunt shopping is for shoppers who can afford to purchase a bargain item when they come across it. It's not about utilitarian acquisition.
  • Posted on: 05/16/2019

    Is Crazy Cazboy’s pricing too crazy or just crazy enough?

    A fascinating side effect of the digital retailing trend is the flood of returned items that need to be inspected, re-furbished and re-flowed back into inventory at a cost that exceeds the expected margins. Looks Like Caz has tapped into this trove of reclamation center merchandise and built a retail concept around it. I imagine he buys goods by the pound, sprinkling in just enough gadgets to inspire the treasure hunt. This is not so different from the early off-price apparel retailers (like the original Loehmanns in Brooklyn) who merchandised overruns and samples in a chaotic environment. Or the "odd-lot" type stores that sold primarily hard lines. Scheduled markdowns are a vintage technique too. Many New Yorkers will remember the Sym's apparel store that put dates on the garment tags. The trouble is that the flow of genuine bargains runs short as the store count increases. Crazy Cazboy's may not be a "gimmick" per se, but it will never scale, Wilbur.
  • Posted on: 05/14/2019

    Did Walmart just one-up Amazon on next day deliveries?

    So many wrinkles to this move in the speed-of-delivery chess match between Walmart and Amazon: First, I feel certain that the next-day promise from Walmart was not a knee-jerk response to the Amazon announcement last week. Certainly the counter-measure has been long in the works, waiting for the right moment. Lore and Bezos are both playing several moves ahead. Second, it's worth remembering that Walmart provides "right now" fulfillment for any purchase made in-store, a service standard that Amazon cannot match. (Of course the item needs to be in-stock, but that's another story...) Third, unless you're sending a ready-to-eat meal or urgently needed medicine, speed of delivery is a service distinction without much of a difference. Once the shopper is waiting, they are waiting. Rarely does another day or two actually matter in any practical sense. Fourth, consumer survey responses on this topic are highly suspect and subject to confirmation bias, in my opinion. Shoppers naturally say that faster is better, but once we put a price increment to that experience, the picture changes. In this regard, Prime membership allows shoppers to disassociate the sunk cost of the delivery system. Rather brilliant on Amazon's part!
  • Posted on: 05/09/2019

    Will Schick parent’s acquisition of Harry’s create a ‘next-generation consumer products platform’?

    I view this deal as more additive than synergistic. By that I mean Harry's younger, hipper shoppers will overlap very little with Schick's and Wilkinson's older guard. On the other hand, the combination could lead to critical-mass distribution power for Edgewell, as Wilkinson is sold in Walmart and Walgreen, while Harry's has famously found a prominent position in Target. The shave club concept has clearly altered the landscape in men's grooming. Even Gillette has been forced to create a competitive offering. Subscriptions have emerged as a tried-and-true entry strategy for disruptor brands that lack the clout to get shelf space in major chains. Once a following is developed, the power balance shifts. Harry's has been a great example of how this can work.
  • Posted on: 05/08/2019

    Will Walmart’s new online pet pharmacy and vet clinics draw more pet parents?

    I think Walmart is well-positioned to win big in this category and become a top-three purveyor of pet products and services, just as it has in the prescription eyeglasses category. The playbook was written roughly 28 years ago. It was at the peak of the one-hour optical boom then led by Lenscrafters and Pearle Vision. Sam himself recognized there was an inviting space beneath the padded margins then common in the vision care category. Today Walmart Vision Centers is the third largest industry player, with 2,900 in-store locations. I see many parallels with the pet sector, which is dominated by Petsmart and Petco which have more than 3,000 locations between them. Both chains combine a mix of product sales, medications, pet services and on-site veterinary clinics. Margins are fairly rich, which must look tempting to the retail logistics masters in Bentonville. Fold in a bit of digital innovation (an area where the top pet chains seem to be active but conventional) and Walmart stands a good chance of disrupting the entire category.
  • Posted on: 05/08/2019

    What can we learn from the Fisher-Price Rock ‘n Play recall?

    What was the fault? In a word, DELAY. This product had a fundamentally flawed, ultimately dangerous design concept. If probably should never have been brought to market. It certainly should have been recalled following the first infant death a decade ago. Falling back on carefully-worded safety instructions or disclaimers amounts to victim-blaming. The financial losses caused by recalling and cancelling this product pale in comparison with the loss of trust and damage wrought to Fisher Price's brand equity. If it had been addressed sooner and in a forthright manner, the harm could have been at least partially contained -- for both the company and its customers who suffered tragedies. The lesson here for brand marketers is to own your mistakes and fix them fast, before somebody else gets hurt.
  • Posted on: 05/07/2019

    H&M will cease printing its catalog after 39 years

    "...catalogs are antithetical to fast fashion..." You nailed it, Carol! Sure, catalogs use a lot of trees and e-commerce provides a more convenient ordering process, but the real reason H&M is ditching the catalog (I suspect) is that is doesn't dovetail with its core business model. The rest is smoke.
  • Posted on: 05/07/2019

    What will Walmart gain from its ‘returnship’ program?

    Love the spirit of "returnship" and I hope it leads to a broader impact and way of thinking. Re-hiring a hundred people in one tech center located within a hotly competitive regional talent market should be only the beginning. How about adding an accelerated on-ramp for experienced managers from outside the Walmart community? Expanding the scope beyond the tech/data areas might also have merit.
  • Posted on: 05/06/2019

    Who is winning the shopping search race — Amazon or Google?

    I judge it to be a dead heat between Google and Amazon when it comes to shoppers finding a desired item. Google probably has an edge when it comes to higher consideration purchases, as experienced users have figured out that Amazon may not always have the lowest prices. For known-value items, like music, books, and consumables, Amazon probably is the more efficient place to start.
  • Posted on: 05/06/2019

    Will a strategy built around changing people’s lives transform Lululemon’s business?

    If Lululemon uses its planned experience center stores to attract and teach more new yoga enthusiasts, then its strategy has potential. Let's face it - yoga is still an exotic fitness practice for most Americans. The familiarity and strength of the brand and its visibility in brick-and-mortar could lower some barriers for the uninitiated.
  • Posted on: 04/29/2019

    Walmart’s Intelligent Retail Lab store runs on AI

    I'm stuck in Arizona with the Long Island blues again, wishing I could run right over to Levittown and give this place a close personal inspection. There's so much to say about Walmart's IRL experiment. Number-one for me is the commitment the company is making to in-store sensing, which I believe is an area of innovation whose time has come. The ability to monitor inventory on display is a crucial discipline that all retailers must aspire to. I'm especially intrigued to learn whether IRL can provide actionable signals about perishable product freshness and display replenishment. I grow weary, however, about the pedestrian focus on out-of-stock detection. By now, the industry should understand that detecting OOS is like shutting the barn door after the horses are out. The real opportunity lies in managing on-shelf availability with real-time perpetual store inventory and automated reordering. OOS prevention must be the primary objective, which will make detection and remediation rare events. Yes I know I tend to go on about this topic, but if the data flows from this IRL experiment are as comprehensive as promised, real time PI may finally become practical at scale. Unprecedented inventory accuracy and service levels will surely follow.
  • Posted on: 04/29/2019

    Walmart’s Intelligent Retail Lab store runs on AI

    Great observation about the visibility of sensing tech in this lab store, Ben. At this moment it's very important for shoppers to feel there are "no secrets" about how they are being observed interacting with the merchandise. The wow factor will be exciting to some, too.
  • Posted on: 04/17/2019

    Will livestream shopping take off in the U.S.?

    Great observation, Ben. Makes me wonder whether livestreaming techniques will be adopted by direct selling organizations (DSOs) like Tupperware, Avon, Amway, Herbalife, etc., as an alternative to in-person sales calls. Of course, the products still need to find their way to the customers. Third-party delivery is efficient, but it bypasses the interpersonal contact made possible when sellers hand-deliver merchandise.

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