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: 03/12/2019

    What will it take to make department stores relevant again?

    Department stores face a stark choice -- adopt a wholly new paradigm or fade away. The vast real estate holdings that once constituted the basis of their power have evolved into another kind of "anchor stores" -- the kind that puts a drag on maneuverability. Excess square footage is just a symptom of the larger problem, of course. Shopper behaviors and expectations have changed profoundly in the digital era. The journey downtown or even to the regional mall has been displaced by a tap on the app. Large physical assortments are unwieldy compared with digital's long tail. Against that backdrop, recent innovations from Macy's and Nordstrom may be viewed as admirable -- even heroic. There is still a role for upscale showcase emporiums in major markets. There is a crucial role for merchandising creativity and enhanced experience in all stores. But the era of the mid-market, multi-level mall department store is drawing to a close, I think.
  • Posted on: 02/25/2019

    Tide to roll out laundry cleaning service nationwide

    Wish this service was available when I was a college dorm resident, back in the previous millennium. Now that it's app-enabled, I can imagine students signing up in droves. P&G has been experimenting patiently with this franchised retail concept for years. It hits the mark as a brand extension, a lifestyle service, and a digitally-enabled business. It ensures a continuous market for its laundry cleaning products. With 2,000 locations, P&G is already looking at a multi-billion dollar business. The addition of pickup lockers and satellite storefronts will create a network effect that competing companies will be hard-pressed to match.
  • Posted on: 02/25/2019

    What’s holding back end-to-end inventory visibility?

    The key terms missing from this discussion are "store-level" and "real-time." Warehouse inventory visibility is meaningless to the shopper who encounters a void at the shelf. It does next to nothing for the online or mobile shopper who has no reliable way of knowing that a desired item is in stock for a store-delivered or click-and-carry purchase. Since stores are not located in the cloud, there is a compelling need to focus monitoring and measurement activities in the physical world. Sure, that data will be accrued in digital form, but that's kind of a tautology, isn't it? My point is that you can't have end-to-end inventory visibility when you ignore one end of the chain. Real-time, store-level perpetual inventory visibility is not a nice-to-do. It's a life and death requirement for any retailer that plans to survive into the next decade.
  • Posted on: 02/20/2019

    What will it take to transform BOPIS ops from just okay to great?

    I would have liked this comment twice if I could, Dave. Store-level, real-time inventory visibility is the number one issue for click & carry retailing. Connectivity to the digital store is essential. Otherwise BOPIS is essentially "click & hope." In FMCG I have heard anecdotally of item OOS/substitution rates has high as 25%. The worst offenders in this regard are third-party services whose online catalogs are not linked with store-level realities. There are many other challenges, of course. There is an emerging art to "staging" orders in retail stores for customer pickup. (Most difficult for grocers due to temperature control issues.)
  • Posted on: 02/15/2019

    Will Amazon’s decision to bail cause a New York backlash?

    Amazon isn't leaving New York by any stretch. It already has 5,000 employees in the five boroughs and those numbers are likely to grow. The controversy over its proposed mega-development in Long Island City will fade, and other tech businesses will certainly invest in the market as the mayor predicts. The twin attractions of a massive local talent pool and a massive capital pool are too compelling to pass up for ambitious firms. Long Island City's waterfront will undoubtedly be developed in a series of less overwhelming projects, and the tax breaks will likely add up to similar scale. Area residents will still complain about gentrification, but the changes will be unstoppable, if more gradual. It's worth noting that Cornell University has opened a major technology campus a few hundred yards across the East River on Roosevelt Island, which will add to the numbers of interns and new grads with coding skills. As for Amazon, it looks like it is finally putting on some big-boy pants and facing facts: It's far too big and too high-profile to duck local politics any longer.
  • Posted on: 02/11/2019

    Is there really wisdom in the crowd?

    Great observations here. Even the clever question, "What would others say?" may be subject to the echo-chamber confound. The "surprisingly popular" crowd response reminds me a bit of Fred Reichheld's "likelihood to recommend" question. While crowd wisdom may be convenient to measure in this way, it may also lack diagnostic utility.
  • Posted on: 02/11/2019

    Are apps and voice assistants the keys to e-grocery adoption?

    Crucial points about "near real-time inventory visibility across the store" and "shelf replenishment," Mohamed. Voice interaction cannot reach mainstream acceptance in the absence of such data accuracy. Otherwise, at best we have a shopping list app, not an ordering solution.
  • Posted on: 01/22/2019

    Can grocers sell produce without plastic bags and boxes?

    Considered in isolation, the proposition of reducing or eliminating plastics from the produce department would no doubt have very few opponents. Under present practice, however there's a handling hangup at the POS for random weight items. Nikki Baird has articulated this well in her comment. The lightweight plastic bags and tiny bar code labels used so freely in today's produce departments make separating, identifying and weighing items very efficient for the checker. Eliminating them would mandate a re-thinking of the price lookup and weighing process. It's possible that added labor and shrinkage costs would make this decision economically difficult. Pricing produce by the unit is a partial solution. Avocados, celery, cucumbers and bell peppers are often sold that way. But tossing loose mushrooms or green beans or Brussels sprouts in a wire shopping cart just ain't gonna work. As so often happens in the retail business, a commendable goal -- eliminate unneeded plastics -- has a host of secondary consequences. A workable solution must take a systemic approach. How about re-usable small wire baskets that are surrendered at the POS as their contents are weighed and placed in the shopper's reusable grocery sacks?
  • Posted on: 01/22/2019

    Will Amazon succeed with brand sampling rooted in machine learning?

    Sampling has a long and respected history in the retail world as an effective form of persuasive communications that is welcomed by shoppers. Within stores, its pretty much a "spray and pray" proposition with fairly low conversion rates. Think of the food sampling inside Trader Joe's and Costco. Why wouldn't Amazon seek to use its delivery channel to provide a more targeted sampling service? With millions of boxes being delivered daily filled with air pillows, it would be a simple matter to insert sample products on the fulfillment line. The ride-along costs would be near zero. Targeting would make straightforward use of Amazon's customer data to match manufacturer samples with likely consumers. Machine learning may be overkill for this, but it would make sense to leverage the existing engine, whatever it is. From the shopper's perspective, well-considered samples and coupons could be perceived as a welcome surprise - in New Orleans they call this little something extra a "lagniappe".
  • Posted on: 01/18/2019

    NRF: Attendees show performance anxiety for 2019

    2018 has truly been a "year of living dangerously" for the retail industry, marked by both a fabulous holiday sales result and a softening in the stock market. Against the backdrop of political speech and trade posturing that has heads spinning, it's no surprise that this confluence of events would make the industry nervous. The present set of circumstances is certainly unprecedented, but the same may be said of every moment in history. As retailers look ahead, they will try to grasp at threads of continuity they can use to plan their way forward. I think 2019 may be a little less exuberant in terms of retail sales, with slight growth, along with strong investment in new solutions and tech. Tariffs and politics will inject uncertainty, and consumers will continue to shift spending toward experiences over goods.
  • Posted on: 01/08/2019

    What’s holding back in-store mobile engagement?

    I have long maintained that any medium that draws shoppers attention away from the products on display should be regarded with some skepticism. Instant access to product and pricing information has value, but interaction with mobile devices is isolating, even within a public space. In my experience, even the shopping list app for my favorite supermarket is awkward to use while piloting a cart through the aisles. On the rare occasion when I make a high-consideration purchase in a physical store, I have usually pre-researched my decision online and have no need to check further. The lessons learned by Videocart in 1988 and its successors still apply -- it's a mistake to try to force shoppers to change their behavior to serve a technology. While mobile tech is getting smoother with each iteration, I remain skeptical that shoppers will alter their essential habits unless there is a clear and meaningful reduction in friction.
  • Posted on: 01/08/2019

    Sears likely headed for liquidation

    The cruel joke on Fast Eddie Lampert is that the remaining big box and mall real estate locations in the Sears/Kmart portfolio were plummeting in value while he pursued his machinations. Few were fooled about his agenda to squeeze milk - and blood - out of an aging cash cow. It's astonishing, in retrospect, that the combination of two formerly-number-one retailers resulted in such a pathetic entity. But building a healthy retail company was never the objective. I have commented previously that the Sears Holdings real estate play was not even an original idea. On Christmas eve in 1980, the entire E.J. Korvette discount chain was shuttered by its owners who had determined they could earn more by leasing its real estate than it could by selling products. When I became a retail reporter two years later, Sears and Kmart were #1 and #2 in the world. Walmart was #12 in the U.S. It remains to be seen how much of Mr. Lampert's gains will be clawed back by law suits from shareholders and employees whose pensions have been decimated. Could get ugly. I anticipate we'll be commenting on that in this forum too.
  • Posted on: 12/28/2018

    Are dollar stores bad for cities?

    While dollar stores do not inspire me to celebrate the greatness of humanity, it's not fair to fault them for thoroughly understanding their business niche and executing against it very effectively. "Selling cheap stuff cheap" is a low-operating-cost model that will naturally tend to include packaged shelf-stable foods and exclude perishables, fruits and vegetables. Such a store will hardly be an oasis within an urban "food desert" -- but that's not its intent. I suppose some deeper questions might be, "Do dollar stores prevent other food sellers from thriving in inner-city neighborhoods?" and, "How do neighborhood residents benefit when a dollar store operates there?"
  • Posted on: 12/28/2018

    Has retail figured out last-minute holiday fulfillment?

    It's easy to declare now that we always knew online retailers would master most holiday deliveries, but the outlook was pretty shaky a few years back. The volume surge, uncertain weather, and less experienced seasonal employees are challenges that will always exist, even as systems are refined. There's still a way to go with respect to inventory forecasting and visibility. I regard this as the discipline that will set the leaders apart from the pack. When fully mastered: Fewer items go OOS or on back order. Shoppers see accurate item availability status at all touchpoints. Fulfillment gets quicker. Gift return rates decrease. Store pickup works more smoothly. Shoppers may like overnight delivery and will sometimes pay a little to get it, but I think most are pragmatic enough that a two or three-day free standard is quite satisfactory. The assurance of tracking notices is a key element that inspires confidence an even adds some anticipatory pleasure.
  • Posted on: 12/26/2018

    Delivery drivers land on Santa’s Nice List

    I think most of the delivery people who have been reliably dropping items at our front door this season deserve at least a "high-five." A bottle of water and a granola bar is a nice touch -- wish I'd thought of it. That said, I'm not a big fan of third-party delivery of groceries, and I believe any model that inserts another brand between the supermarket and its shoppers is unwise and ultimately unscalable. Restaurant deliveries are a separate use case that makes more sense for independent restaurateurs especially. At a certain scale, grocery home delivery services could have the capacity to act as last-mile carriers for other local businesses. The tipping point would be reached when the grocery vans are visiting every neighborhood within a trading area on at least a daily basis. The incremental cost of third-party deliveries would be very low, enabling very attractive economies. I proposed this model very early -- perhaps it's time for a second look.

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