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: 07/17/2019

    Has Prime Day become America’s cue to shop for back-to-school?

    Yes Prime Day seems to have become a BTS trigger, but not all by itself. In a visit to Walmart over the weekend I encountered large displays of school merchandise. (Timing is not unusual here in Arizona, where the new school year begins in mid-August.)
  • Posted on: 07/17/2019

    Alexa – Are Americans ready to shop by voice?

    Wow it took some time for me to scroll and digest all the great interactions in this thread. If only my smart speaker could have just read it to me.... Kudos to Ryan for calling out "the whole digital speaker sorority" in his comments. My favorite phrase in the whole thread. I agree with others here that these devices are (so far) better suited for keeping shopping lists and item-replenishment ordering and not too useful for browsing higher-consideration goods. Yes, newer devices with screens may change the game somewhat -- but aren't those really just tablets on tables? I can do all that stuff on a refurbished 7-inch Fire that cost me 25 bucks on Woot. And I can carry it around the house. But ... I don't. At least not regularly. I don't think I'm a Luddite. It's just that the use cases are still in their infancy and it will take millions of consumer interactions for these platforms to refine their functionality. It will also take millions of interactions for consumers to refine and adopt new behaviors. Voice shopping is definitely "a thing" but we can't know exactly what it's going to look like in another year or two. I personally think home automation is the killer-app for voice speakers.
  • Posted on: 07/08/2019

    Does blockchain face scalability limitations?

    The blockchain is a world-wide ledger that relies on massive redundancy as its core method of data security. This is why it gobbles up so many computer resources and draws so much electricity. This seems like the very definition of a scalability challenge to me.
  • Posted on: 07/08/2019

    Is Walmart at an online crossroads?

    Well-stated, Herb. Retail is indeed a fundamental human activity and an engine for prosperity. Its methods will always be in flux and its competitors will never stop jockeying for positioning in the marketplace. So what if Walmart is continuing to make strategic adjustments to its approach to e-commerce? Stagnation is the enemy here. For a massive company with a great deal of "fixed capital," Walmart has shown a remarkable willingness to experiment in the last few years. That seems healthy to me.
  • Posted on: 07/03/2019

    NRF study says customers dig retail tech

    Digital retail technology focuses an electron microscope on inventory availability issues. Retailers must now finally get control over this discipline -- especially at the store level to support search-ahead and click & carry shopping. Shoppers like mobile apps, and they are becoming more adept at using them for many purchase situations, buy back-orders, out-of-stocks, and item substitutions seem somehow more egregious when digitally magnified. As for the rest -- e-fitting rooms, AR/VR, and friction-less payments -- they all amount to zero if the desired product isn't available for purchase at the moment of truth. If digital tech is applied as a veneer covering an ancient retail infrastructure it will likely fail. If it is the face of a sound, modern, dependable retail operation, it will succeed.
  • Posted on: 07/03/2019

    Are ‘veggie burgers’ and ‘oat milk’ confusing to consumers?

    Oy! Sounds like the animal products industry is trying to pour chilled milk over the red-hot vegetable protein industry. Public legal shaming over nomenclature is a great way to instill FUD in the public and deter the investor community that has been going bananas over meat-like food products. If you have a big stake in bovines, why not attempt to strong-arm your representatives into legislating the dictionary? While they are at it, they can add newspeak adjectives like "chocolaty," "cheezy," and "fruity" to the banned list. Oh wait -- I just received a cease-and-desist letter from from the tropical fruit PAC demanding that I retract the term "going bananas" because it's deceptive and confusing. For clarification I declare I have no evidence of bananas being involved in the pea-protein-and-beets industry.
  • Posted on: 07/03/2019

    Are ‘veggie burgers’ and ‘oat milk’ confusing to consumers?

    Well-observed, Warren. You have accurately minced the meat of this issue. I have serious doubts that our legislators possess sufficient wisdom or subtlety to craft a sensible nomenclature law without creating chaos.
  • Posted on: 07/02/2019

    Are offline experiences becoming more important to online performance?

    In the Incredible Dissolving Store, digital interactions are now pervasive. But shoppers still want to interact with physical goods and experience the art of merchandising and the thrill of discovery -- when it suits them. Every shopping occasion, every meander to purchase is unique. Only a store can offer a "buy now use now" purchase experience. Only a store can engage the senses of smell and touch. Digital substitutes may displace some store encounters some of the time, but they will not replace them. The creators of upstart online brands seem often to discover these truths after they score some initial success with a slice of the consumer market. They they accept investment and need to grow further. Suddenly a physical presence in the market starts to look more valuable as both a marketing statement and a place to move more goods. Surprise! They've been retailers all along. Each retailer and channel is likely to find its physical/digital equilibrium over time and that day seems to be approaching rapidly now. Stores are definitely changing, and digital-first retailers are less hell-bent on rolling out massive chains that tie them down to a long-term business strategy.
  • Posted on: 07/02/2019

    Will meatless meat, CBD and cold brew coffee help food retailers differentiate?

    They desperately need some sexier nomenclature, but "plant-based protein alternatives" are likely to have some staying power. There's still a lot of product innovation needed in this area, but "bleeding burgers" stand as evidence that they are on their way to become a supermarket staple. CBD-infused products are going mainstream in a hurry and will soon be as pervasive as any other OTC supplement or skin creme ingredient. Look for their inclusion in sunscreen products soon (just a hunch). Cold coffee has an inside track on sugary and diet colas. I'm not impressed by "cold brew" as an attribute, however. I've been saving leftover drip coffee in a glass pitcher in my fridge for decades. Maybe I should have been bottling it in expensive plastic carafes instead.... Retailers should not expect to differentiate around any of these emerging categories. Either they are important to consumers or they aren't. Give 'em what they want if you want to compete.
  • Posted on: 06/17/2019

    Does self-checkout make sense for Costco?

    I don't love self-checkout at Costco because many of our trips typically involve bulky items that we leave in the cart where they are hand-scanned. Any process that means more lifting large products to the scanner table and replacing them in the cart seems counter-productive. I wouldn't mind a Costco "fast-lane," however, only for those times when I run in for a roast chicken and a bottle of wine for dinner.
  • Posted on: 06/17/2019

    How well did Target handle its no good, very bad weekend?

    Looks like the 90-minute POS breakdown adds up to a short-lived embarrassment for Target. A bummer for Saturday shoppers who arrived at the wrong time, but the damage was contained, and the publicity seems to be fading already.
  • 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.

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