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.

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  • Posted on: 09/20/2018

    What would 3,000 AmazonGo stores do to the U.S. retail landscape?

    I know I'm kinda late to join this discussion, but think this through with me, please:
    • Amazon's announced goal of 3,000 store openings by 2021 would amount to 1.9% of the total C-Store store count of 155,000 nationally. Since 123,000 of these sell gasoline (NACS) and are located away from urban centers, Amazon Go's walk-up or strip-center concept is more likely a competitor to the remaining 32,000 non-fuel convenience stores (20% of the total).
    • Amazon Go doesn't sell tobacco products, which account for 34% of inside sales at C-Stores. So Amazon is actually targeting a narrow slice of the C-Store industry, primarily its food service offerings in cities. Hardly an existential threat in the short term, but likely to spur some competitive response from entrenched players.
    • In-town fast-service food outlets should properly see Amazon Go as a direct competitor, but any outlet with a drive-thru should feel little pain from this.
    • The in-store sensing and "just-walk-out" technology may seem extravagant now, but like Fire tablets and Echo Dots the unit cost will inevitably decrease with scale. Perhaps what seems like madness today is really Amazon taking a long view of this potential? There are plenty of reasons why it might not pay off, but, hey for a trillion-dollar company it's worth a shot.
  • Posted on: 09/19/2018

    Tuft & Needle and Native knew their first products fell short

    This story raises a provocative question for me. Where was the real "innovation" for each of these companies: in the attributes of the products themselves or in the alternative ways they were brought to market? In the case of Native, the positioning of its products as free of unwanted ingredients tapped into a desire of a certain customer segment who desire a chemical-free lifestyle. In the case of Tuft & Needle, the purchasing and direct delivery mechanism is novel, and it appeals to a shopper segment who hoped to avoid the conventional mattress store experience. In both these instances, the efficacy of the products may be considered secondary to something else -- positioning or purchase experience. As start-ups, both Native and Tuft & Needle faced big challenges in establishing proprietary manufacturing methods for their products. Initial product quality, by their own admissions, were not ideal. Now that they have survived long enough to become acquisition targets, they can each tap into the production expertise of their new parent companies.
  • Posted on: 09/17/2018

    Walmart expands test of giant automated grocery kiosk

    You have the right idea. Many click & carry grocers in Europe are set up like drive-ins. Shoppers pull into a covered space, pop the trunk and an associate loads the packages. Our local Walmart has a similar thing going -- drivers pull up to a side entrance (no awning) and an associate brings out the order. Walmart's giant drive-up kiosks are an interesting variation on the theme that anticipates a large volume of pickup orders, I think. One aspect I'm uncertain about is the method for bringing orders from the store out to the remote structure. Do associates use a hand-truck or a golf cart or simply shopping carts? How is the cold-chain handled in hot weather? What about wet or snowy conditions? I have a feeling that Walmart is still working out the answers to these questions.
  • Posted on: 09/17/2018

    Are grocers shortchanging flexitarians?

    Grocers should always adjust assortments to demand. If vegan sandwich patties are what your shoppers want, then you sure enough should be offering them. The same goes for organic strawberries or buckwheat (gluten-free) pancake mix. If adding popular items such as almond milk creates space management pressures, consider that this is not really a new challenge. There are always a few slower-moving items to cut. Meeting current trends is seldom as simple as allocating a percentage of shelf space to align with a demographic statistic, like the percent of vegetarians in the population. Many of the foods offered in supermarkets have always been non-meat. Non-vegetarians buy many of them too. When it comes to prepared and frozen foods, here is where some creativity enters the equation. Center-of-the-plate vegan and vegetarian options should be offered side-by-side with products containing meat. Plenty of households will purchase both types of foods, according to the varying preferences of family members.
  • Posted on: 09/10/2018

    Should the outdoor industry welcome selling on walmart.com?

    I can well imagine the push-back from traditional outdoor retailers when they saw their vendors' products appear on walmart.com. If I were in their boots, I'd bring pressure too, even if I knew it was only a temporary holding action. If minimum advertised prices are indeed being respected, then the objection may come down to the Walmart brand aura, and not a fear of margin erosion. There's a natural tension between brands' desire for wider distribution and specialty retailers' desire to carry an assortment with brand cachet. Walmart has very vigorously stirred this pot. Top brands that choose to withdraw from the big online marketplaces may leave an opening for mass market brands to step in. Outdoor product manufacturers are entitled to choose their strategies in this regard.
  • Posted on: 08/30/2018

    Which market research tasks are likely to be taken over by AI?

    AI has great potential for tracking behaviors en masse and mining the data flows for insights. Social sentiment analysis comes to mind. So would conversational commerce interactions. Machine learning is already a foundation for price optimization systems -- aren't they really a form of behavioral research? For survey research, there remains a need for a qualified professional to design the hypotheses, the target sample, and the questions. An AI could be useful for faster data analysis, but interpretation of results requires a human touch, at least so far. Consider that data analyses -- including measures of validity and error -- used to require laborious manual calculations. Today, even experts use time-saving analytics software. If AI-based tools can help reduce human time and effort, it's possible that one outcome may be more research conducted on more questions of managerial interest. Overall, I think that's a bullish picture for the market research profession.
  • Posted on: 08/29/2018

    What should retailers do to ensure seafood sustainability?

    One likely way retailers might weigh in on the "sustainable" seafood issue could be by spotlighting products from responsible aquaculture and pressing all suppliers to document their practices. I've read that much shrimp from Asia, most Atlantic salmon, many oysters and pretty much all tilapia (freshwater cichlid) are not "wild" but spawned in enclosures. The farming practices for some of these products can be worrisome. There are loads of "exposes" about this issue on YouTube but also many posts that debunk some of the worst claims. How's a consumer to sort this out? Wild-caught fish are often preferred but can be more expensive. Rising global demand and irresponsible harvesting have put great pressure on fisheries. Then there's the pollution issue. Top predators like tuna and swordfish tend to accumulate contaminants from their prey, like mercury. I think buying seafood can be mysterious for many shoppers. Grocers who offer clear guidance on sourcing, selection and preparation ideas will win trust and gain sales.
  • Posted on: 08/28/2018

    ‘Jittery’ prices will come back to hurt Amazon

    A key lesson learned from my interactions with several "price optimization" software firms is that a retailer's price image depends on shoppers' perception of trustworthiness. Trust depends largely (but not entirely) on stability. Too many price changes can tend to undermine the value message being crafted by the retailer. This presents quite an irony for Amazon. Its dynamic pricing tactics send a message to shoppers that they should routinely check competing prices, or -- as Paula notes here -- wait for a price dip on non-urgent purchases.
  • Posted on: 08/28/2018

    Publix pioneers an easier way to see the doctor

    Tele-health innovation is a promising idea, but the execution will be crucial. A big concern for me: How will the exam booths and the various devices within be kept sanitized? I personally wouldn't want to use a touchscreen previously accessed by a mom with sick children. The remote setup seems to transfer more responsibility to the patient to help with the exam. Good for some, but not everyone will arrive with the kind of health literacy or self awareness needed to get an optimal result. If a qualified tech is present to walk patients through the exam process, that might help address certain concerns. There's no mention of this in the Publix coverage that I could find. I also can't help observing how the screen-based interaction could turn physicians and nurse practitioners into in-bound telemarketers of sorts, reading from scripts, and evaluated based on calls per hour. Still, it probably beats sitting in an ER waiting room for hours alongside folks with various unknown ailments.
  • Posted on: 08/27/2018

    Can Zippin zip past where Amazon Go is going?

    I'm scratching my head over how this story has been covered since the first Amazon Go store opened. "Just walk out" has a narrow use case -- for downtown or office park convenience stores with primarily foot traffic. Why does the business press keep insisting that this has application for full-line grocery stores when the demos clearly show shoppers buying just a couple of ready-to-consume items on a visit? Zippin and MS/Walmart are adding fuel to the fire certainly. It is cool to see how smart shelves, video surveillance and NFC can combine to create a slightly faster checkout experience. I'm a major fan of in-store sensing for a variety of applications, so these technologies are promising. But spare me the ironic fantasy of the store where you don't need to interact with another human yet you submit to intensive surveillance when you buy a sandwich and a Red Bull.
  • Posted on: 08/27/2018

    Shoppers may finally be using retail apps

    Collectively, app use is on an adoption curve not too different from other tech. Lots of folks use a few; few folks use a lot. Individual apps gain usage when their features add value to users. Retailers keep modifying functionality with this goal in mind, but ultimately, each app is a "walled garden" experience for shoppers. Accumulating points from a handful of visits creates a poor effort/reward ratio. That's why most shoppers will always limit app use to a handful. Truly useful services, such as prescription refills or assortment curation, have potential to earn followers. The more seamlessly these are executed, the better. Ultimately, I believe many mobile apps are likely to be overtaken by voice services/skills that are more streamlined and web-based. "Alexa, reorder my water pills from CVS," is way less effort than finding and opening an app.
  • Posted on: 08/21/2018

    Sears faces Craftsman competition of its own making

    I imagine Stanley Black & Decker will position Craftsman at the top of their line and even trade on the lifetime guarantee -- at least on non-powered hand tools. Craftsman is unusual among tool lines in that its range includes both power tools like Black & Decker and wrenches and screwdrivers, like Stanley. SBD will need to be highly strategic to make the most of this addition to its portfolio. Hopefully, its collaborative deal with declining Sears won't prove to be an Achilles heel.
  • Posted on: 08/21/2018

    Do CPGs need their own voice for Alexa?

    Unique brand voices might materialize as a kind of digital revival of radio jingles. Or it might lead to "cacophony of distractions" that Dave Bruno imagines. The concept of "audio packaging" is worthy of exploration. Think of the three-tone "Intel Inside" chime, or the Old Spice eight-note whistle. Both are memorable, and could serve as "confirmation" signals when a brand app is opened by Alexa or Hey Google. Brand marketers -- and the voice platforms themselves -- may want to tread carefully in this area, as I can imagine a consumer backlash materializing.
  • Posted on: 08/20/2018

    Are stock-up grocery trips becoming a thing of the past?


    Very astute observation about split shopping, Neil. When more shoppers cobble together a household pantry solution using 3 or 5 or more grocery product retailers, each store must adapt to compete with known and unknown rivals. This also means nearly all grocery sellers -- physical or digital -- are "flying half-blind" with respect to their membership or loyalty programs. Each retailer can only see a partial picture of household buying patterns, which makes it nearly impossible to visualize their true preferences or potential lifetime value.
  • Posted on: 08/20/2018

    Is the time ripe for Google stores?

    Google's hardware range is expanding, and with it the need to enable consumers to interact with its products. Showcase stores are a good idea, and the company would do well to use them to define its own brand identity. This may be best accomplished by elevating a unique hardware product to "legendary" status. The Pixel 2 mobile phone comes close, but the Chromebook is kind of a lightweight. Google Glass hasn't set the world on fire yet either. Something sexy is needed. Using physical stores to demonstrate its product "ecosystem" may be a promising strategy. To do so, it would need to staff them with highly competent product advisers, and build hands-on experiences into the store concept.

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