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: 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.
  • Posted on: 12/21/2018

    Is Amazon Prime not what it’s cracked up to be?

    For me, Amazon Prime benefits just barely justify the cost -- for now. Original TV programming is probably my favorite "goodie." I make very few purchases where one or two-day shipping is even important. It's very convenient for simplifying "taps" when placing mobile orders. I have a hunch that the delivery speed "hook" that gave Prime its rapid acceptance may be a lot less special now, as nearly every other online seller is hewing to similar standards. Every digital retailer is removing "friction" from their ordering and fulfillment processes. Even free shipping is more or less unremarkable. Keep an eye out for the Chinese retailers who are creating engagement with gameification. I figure Prime will need to keep innovating and redefining its value proposition to keep ahead of the curve. So far it's done OK, but as is said here, the "fine print" is getting very intricate and the alternatives are getting more compelling.
  • Posted on: 12/17/2018

    Are retailers getting over their SKU management hurdles?

    From the early days of the Category Management movement, when "rank-and-cut" assortment management became a thing, there was an awareness that those methods were too crude. It's not just about what items sell most -- it's about what items are important to high-value shoppers? Fold in the trade marketing incentives (as others have mentioned here) and you have a multi-variate challenge. The calculus has often been made harder by poor on-shelf availability, which can skew the metrics, and generally lax in-store implementation. All three of the experts cited in this article are long-time, highly-astute observers of this phenomenon, and their suggestions should be heeded.
  • Posted on: 12/14/2018

    Does fear motivate workers or make things worse?

    Every employee lives with the implicit fear about keeping their job and paying their expenses. Many worry about progressing in their careers and providing for family. When managers use fear as a controlling tactic, however, the workplace becomes toxic. Accountability and empowerment are far better motivators. When employees can see clearly how their efforts matter and are suitably enabled, most (not all) will strive to perform well. Those that don't should probably be let go.
  • Posted on: 12/14/2018

    Does Starbucks have a big delivery opportunity?

    I like Uber Eats and I like Starbucks, but I can't reckon paying the delivery cost for cups of coffee. The packaging waste bothers me too. Then as others mention here, the temperature issue could be a hangup. Starbucks certainly has reason to offer its products in any and every way its customers desire. I think its decision to partner with a third party tells the tale: If it thought this had truly big potential, Starbucks would create its own delivery service and keep more of the margin.
  • Posted on: 12/13/2018

    Retailing success doesn’t depend on silver bullets

    The "silver bullet" mentality is a useful way to think about business innovation in retail. I have used the "bolt-on" metaphor in the past to make a similar point. A new app, or process, or policy seldom succeeds in transforming business performance on its own when addressed in isolation. Beneficial change -- especially in the physical retail environment -- requires a systematic approach that engages the people on the front lines. Provide tools and support that enable their success, and most employees will embrace new methods and project their satisfaction toward customers. This is an enduring principle of customer service which is no less relevant in the present era of digitally-mediated experiences.
  • Posted on: 12/13/2018

    Kraft Heinz ‘embraced failure’ in digital transformation

    I'm of mixed mind regarding the highly-touted innovation labs, venture funds and incubators set up by large organizations. In their favor is their declared intention to vigorously pursue development of new products, services and businesses. Large brand marketers and retail companies need to step out of the "failure-is-not-an-option" rut, without risking their large scale, cash-cow businesses. But the downside of this approach may be the sequestering of all the cool new ideas, disruptive talent, and future-focused projects away from the core business. What does it say about management's ability to trust its brand stewards? About how it can build a culture of innovation that permeates the entire company? After listening to Ms. Barton's remarks, I believe this is an issue worthy of thoughtful debate.
  • Posted on: 12/11/2018

    RetailWire Christmas Commercial Challenge: vs. Petco

    I sure love our two rescue mutts -- Roux-Garou the Cajun Tiger and Rodney Dangerdog -- and we spend plenty nourishing them and taking care of their health, but we know they don't "get" the holiday spirit. What makes them happiest are human attention, exercise and tasty treats (not necessarily in that order). So please forgive me if I stand outside looking in at these two holiday ads and mildly resist the moniker, "pet parent." Both spots are charming, and each tugs at the heart strings in its own way. While I appreciate the boy-rescues-dog story presented in the Petco animation, Chewy's portrayal of dog-actors seems more effectively focused on influencing owners to indulge their happy pets.

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