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: 11/16/2018

    RetailWire Christmas Commercial Challenge: Amazon vs. Best Buy

    One aspect of the Amazon ad I found notable was its use of video clips that revealed its process, like the Kiva robots, the workers in the fulfillment center, the pickup lockers and hand-trucks delivering those singing boxes. Its people are portrayed as friendly cogs in the system. Best Buy portrays its people as problem solvers -- a sharp contrast -- but the vignettes are a bit stilted. Overall, Amazon earns a slight edge for its upbeat tone and the memorable branding of its singing boxes.
  • Posted on: 11/13/2018

    Walmart puts AI to the test in an in-store lab

    Store-level inventory optimization is the "cutting-edge" innovation that has been honed in grocery for close to 20 years. After some early attempts to automate ordering using computer assistance proved disastrous, the grocery industry mostly turned its back on CGO/CAO solutions. A handful of chains in North America saw it differently. Price Chopper (Golub) in New York State was an early adopter that implemented its solution about 17 years ago and has enjoyed ongoing benefits of minimal out-of-stocks, minimal excess inventory, and more efficient store delivery. Today, Sobey's and Wegmans are also among the success stories. One element described here that none of these retailers has needed to get its forecasts right is the 700 cameras that Mr. Iannone has planned for a Sam's Club. There are other practical ways to keep accurate tabs on inventory levels as part of the routine receiving-merchandising-stocking process. In-store sensing is absolutely a revolutionary area in retailing. Store-level forecasting and automated reordering pays great dividends in replenishment categories. Machine learning is a requirement to make these things happen, but promoting AI as the panacea is as much hype as substance.
  • Posted on: 11/12/2018

    Is it time for U.S. retailers to embrace Singles Day?

    Singles Day is a great story, but we shouldn't underestimate how specific it is to the consumer culture of China. It grew somewhat organically from a consumer trend. It is absolutely secular. In its home country there is no crowding from Halloween or Thanksgiving as it would have in the U.S. American retailers could certainly jump on the Singles Day bandwagon. If they do, they will need to consider how much complexity it adds to the Fall selling season and whether it merely shifts spending a couple weeks earlier in the fourth quarter. Consumer wallets may not be elastic enough to buy in to another holiday. If the credit card bills from Singles Day arrive in early December, it may have a cooling effect on holiday sales.
  • Posted on: 11/09/2018

    Can retail rivals beat Amazon without having lower prices over the holidays?

    On items with service, returns or installation requirements, like TVs, large appliances or car audio, yes, rivals have opportunities to best Amazon. On items with a high likelihood of returns or exchanges, like apparel, yes, sometimes. On exclusive branded items, like some fashion boutiques, yes, often. On many commodity items however, like toys, Amazon will use pricing, availability and speed to command a growing share of holiday sales. There's no winning a race to the bottom on price versus the Big A, but it's not the best way to purchase every item, and consumers are aware of this. Successful rivals will pick their spots, curate their assortments, and try to capture a share of early seasonal spending. Amazon will have an edge at the last minute when speed is the only thing that matters.
  • Posted on: 11/08/2018

    Will Walmart’s bring your own device policy work for it and its associates?

    I have to wonder whether the typical Walmart employee owns a mobile device that will adequately support workplace requirements. Cracked screens aside, what about available memory to run the app? Condition of the battery good enough to maintain Wi-Fi connectivity, light the screen, and run the app continuously throughout the shift? How will recharging be handled if needed? I foresee a support challenge for Walmart's digital team to keep a wide variety of personal device models running smoothly. Remember we are talking about millions of users. Just a thought: Maybe store workers should be provided instead with charging lockers where they drop off their personal devices and pick up a fully-charged company device at the beginning of each shift. Log on, and the app would run -- plus search engine access, VOIP phone and text capability. Log off at the end of the shift and take your own, fully-charged device home. Yes that's a lot of devices to buy, but they won't need wireless accounts because they will only connect to store Wi-Fi.
  • Posted on: 11/08/2018

    What will Instacart’s new grocery pickup service mean for home delivery?

    Seems to me Instacart's service adds another node to the end of the supply chain. So I have some questions about how it improves net consumer value -- via delivery or click-and-carry. Still, the company's expanding partner portfolio and widespread consumer acceptance has been more than remarkable. It has succeeded in establishing a brand that we are hearing sometimes supersedes those of actual retailers in the minds of shoppers. I'll be very interested to learn how Instacart organizes order staging areas within the stores it serves. Can it operate store pickup services within the spaces it already uses for delivery orders? What temperature control methods will be in place? Will orders roll out the front entrance to the regular parking lot or will there be a separate side door? Instacart has shown how the digital aspects of taking and fulfilling orders can be relatively easy. The physical configuration may prove to be harder.
  • Posted on: 10/26/2018

    Should retailers respond to every consumer review?

    Online reviews certainly demand individual responses from brand owners. Ideally each should be uniquely composed, but let's get real. I can think of no job more mind-numbing than sitting in a cubicle monitoring online reviews and formulating replies. It's a task better suited for 'bots, 98% of the time. So I envision a solution that uses AI to respond to the vast majority of reviews while referring outlier comments to humans for special attention. All reviews should be dumped into a sentiment analysis engine to search for meaningful patterns. A lone criticism is easy to discount, but a theme demands management involvement.
  • Posted on: 10/23/2018

    Why haven’t CPG giants figured out what makes small brands so popular?

    Large CPG brands have always leveraged scale to achieve returns and market power. Huge ingredient orders. Long manufacturing runs. Car-load deliveries to the distribution centers and truck-load deliveries to thousands of stores. Mass advertising and promotions. You are quite correct, Mohamed. We are in a "post-mass consumption" era where these sources of market power may be devalued. I think the advent of digital commerce has had a relatively small amplifying effect. Start-up brands have long leveraged their creative advantages by appealing to niche market segments that are often overlooked by mass marketing. The goal is to build enough of a brand following and profit story that the giant CPGs feel the need to buy them out. A notable success story in this regard is Annie's Homegrown, an organic packaged foods business that was acquired in 2014 by General Mills. Its founder, Annie Withey, had previously created the Smartfood snacks business, which was sold to Frito-Lay.
  • Posted on: 10/22/2018

    Stores rarely ID customers before they check out

    "To what end?" is the question too seldom addressed by solution providers who offer methods for shopper tracking in the store. If the answer is "So you can serve the shopper better," you may be on the right track, but I wholeheartedly agree that data gathering can veer easily into stalker territory if not kept in check. If the promise is all about "actionable analytics," some wariness is in order.
  • Posted on: 10/17/2018

    Eddie Lampert is the worst

    Mr. Lampert is, in my opinion, an evil genius. He has been dismembering Sears/Kmart over a period of years with one apparent goal in mind: Extract the maximum value possible for shareholders (i.e. himself). Serving customers is of no consequence. Serving employees even less so. His shrewd tactics are not even original. In its final days, the legendary discount store chain EJ Korvette was shuttered overnight in 1980, when its new owners calculated that the potential lease income from its owned properties could far exceed the profits it could take by selling merchandise. The recent Ch. 11 announcement allows Lampert to continue to stretch out this process. The alternative -- Ch. 7 liquidation -- would have dumped the remaining properties onto the market and probably depress their value. Saddest aspect of this whole slow-motion train wreck is the way employees are being treated, with an enormous pension obligation hanging in the balance.
  • Posted on: 10/16/2018

    Walmart and Advance Auto Parts join forces online

    This is a great match. Advance gets a huge online audience boost and fulfillment know-how. Walmart gets a long-tail assortment in a mostly-male "maker" category. But unassisted online ordering is not always adequate for selecting parts that must be matched to a make and model. And some weekend repair projects demand a key part be obtained NOW. Overnight delivery doesn't get your vehicle back on the road in time for work the next day. If they can execute this well, I foresee a powerful business booster for both partners.
  • Posted on: 10/16/2018

    ‘Frictionless’ is the annoying word of the year

    Yeah, Paula, "frictionless" rubs me the wrong way too. It's a label without a distinction. Time and effort-saving convenience have always been retail virtues. Speedier transactions are often a win for both the store and the shopper. Shorter time to search (online or in-store) is a shopper benefit. Retailers should be wary of any solutions that purport to reduce friction by adding technical complexity. Test any innovation intensely before implementing. How does it feel from the shopper's perspective? What does being "frictionless" cost them? Subscription style, "never run out" programs are a good example of a type of purchase that may be called "frictionless". Set-and-forget is a nice feature, until the price increases or your needs change. Then the effort to revise the deal can negatively offset the up-front convenience. (Think about your cable subscription in this context.) Removing unnecessary time and effort from the retail experience is almost always a good goal. But there are exceptions, too. Think of Costco's format, which is clearly designed to attract stock-up trips that take time. Those sampling stations are all about creating "friction".
  • Posted on: 10/15/2018

    Will anything change for Sears after Chapter 11?

    I'm coming to the rather sickening conclusion that Mr. Lampert's "unlock value" strategy has a great deal to do with escaping from the company's massive pension obligation. That could certainly present a windfall for current Sears investors. We have been witnessing the slow dismemberment of the Sears/Kmart real estate empire. Why prolong this suffering? I think because dumping all of that square footage onto the commercial market at once would create a glut that drives down the liquidation value of the properties. Keeping many stores open with minimal inventory, skeleton staffing, and zero investment in the physical plant allows the company to stanch the bleeding while it waits for the right moments to turn over each asset for best total investor return. Ch. 7 liquidation won't allow that to happen. Reorganization under Ch. 11 allows the maneuvering to continue.
  • Posted on: 10/12/2018

    Cannabis-infused drink and food makers are high on grocery opportunities

    The (Acapulco) Gold Rush is on with respect to cannabis-infused products, there's no doubt. The battle lines will be drawn between folks who want to market CBD and THC from the wellness perspective and those who want to appeal directly to consumer demand. Big pharma is positioning. Soft drink firms too. Infused candy is already a cottage industry. My money is on the breweries, who I can imagine replacing hops with hemp for a product that would sell nicely through existing channels.
  • Posted on: 10/11/2018

    Re:Store concept mixes co-work and co-retail

    Re:Store is a very imaginative concept and I'm a bit smitten with the "storefront as a service" label coined here by Nikki and Joanna. Then again, isn't that what all retailers do for their suppliers in essence? The economic model is innovative and the hurdle has been lowered, but Re:Store doesn't seem to have a unifying merchandising concept of its own. It's essentially a miniaturized mid-town mall where visitors may discover and experience an assortment of online-only brands. Probably great fun to visit, but it's effectiveness at driving sales remains to be seen. I think "showroom as a service" may be a better descriptor.

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