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: 10/19/2020

    Should local book stores be taking on Amazon?

    While I have a warm place in my heart for independent bookstores, those corrugated signs feel like a barrier to me, not an invitation to enter and enjoy. Sure, it may feel satisfying to call out Amazon as an evil actor, but like Neil and others here, I don't enjoy the negativity of the #BoxedOut message. How about focusing on discovery instead: How do you want to find your next great read? Artificial intelligence or natural interest?
  • Posted on: 10/19/2020

    Retailers need to prep for in-store COVID conflicts

    Prominent and permanent-looking posting of the mask and social distancing rules above the entrance is a place to start. No hand-lettered signs or sidewalk easels, which don't look serious or official. How about: "No Mask, No Shopping. For all our protection, [company] health and safety policy requires all persons on these premises to wear a face covering and maintain social distancing for the entire duration of their visit. Non-compliant visitors will not be served and will be asked to leave." Staff could be trained to politely remind guests about the policy once (sometimes people honestly forget) and offer a disposable mask if needed. No associate should ever be asked to take a personal risk by enforcing this rule, however. Just call security.
  • Posted on: 10/08/2020

    Will downsizing (food packs) bring a merry Christmas to Sam’s Club?

    It's a fair bet that large family gatherings will be much rarer this Thanksgiving and Christmas, so stocking smaller proteins is a smart play for most food retailers. For club stores like Sam's Club, this means adjusting the range of sizes they would normally carry. This in turn depends on the product available from the growers, who by now have most of those birds and hams on ice and spoken for, awaiting shipment. If some shoppers wind up frustrated because they could not find the right sized product in their regular supermarket, they might be curious to try Sam's Club as an alternative. The broad promotional push just announced will get the word out. Correspondingly smaller packs of produce items like potatoes, green beans and fresh fruit would help cinch the deal in the minds of new shoppers, I think.
  • Posted on: 10/06/2020

    Are bookkeeping systems ruining retailers’ ability to serve customers?

    I'm not trained in accounting practices, but it seems clear to me from this discussion that an omnichannel enterprise needs to know where its inventory is, and how much, at every moment in time, from the supplier order to the moment of fulfillment. Inventory is money, and managers who know where their cash is can make better decisions and ensure product availability. Opaque workarounds that conform with outdated bookkeeping practices seem like bad business to me. Methods that enable decision makers to view and differentiate the demand signals from different points of purchase will be crucial. "Numbers are no substitute for clear definitions." (William Bruce Cameron 1958)
  • Posted on: 10/06/2020

    Will Levi’s Secondhand store give the brand a sustainable advantage?

    Great story about a great brand. I wish I could get my hands on the Levi's denim jacket I wore in high school and college (albeit in a larger size!). Took me years to break it in thoroughly, sew on patches, and permeate it with concert smoke. Looking over the site, I realize the current definition of "vintage" begins two decades after that jacket became too snug to wear. I guess I was a sustainability pioneer -- I handed it down to my sister, who also wore it for years. While I'm not so certain Levi's Secondhand can count on a very large supply of quality merchandise, I love what it says about the company.
  • Posted on: 10/01/2020

    Walmart reimagines its supercenters

    The thing about "dwell time" is that there is still a proven correlation between more time spent in stores and larger baskets. There is no correlation between long checkout queues and larger baskets. When it comes to saving shoppers' precious time, it's good to encourage leisurely browsing but terrible to make them wait to pay and even worse to waste their time in fruitless searching for a desired item. Wayfinding aids in the store (prominent signage and the mobile app) should help shoppers reduce unproductive search time for items they already know they want. If you can find it you can buy it. Interacting with a mobile app in-store may tend to make the shopping experience more deliberate, especially with regard to checking product prices and attributes or the long-tail assortment. It may extend shopping time, but it's the shopper's choice. Re-signing all 5,000 Walmart stores is a large capital investment, but creating the behind-the-scenes system that knows the exact locations of every SKU in every store is a major strategic advance.
  • Posted on: 09/25/2020

    Will curbside pickup be Costco’s Achilles heel?

    Costco is correct when it says its 680 stores in North America are not set up for curbside pickup. A change could require retro-fitting its buildings and parking lots to add a separate pickup door and possibly a drive-through shelter. Its members are its in-store order-pickers who willingly take on the physical tasks and transportation. Should they be augmented with a small army of paid fulfillment clerks too? Only if this results in an offsetting increment in sales and profits, without damaging the shopper experience. The company is prudent to "never say never" but for now it's wise to kick this idea to the curb.
  • Posted on: 09/25/2020

    Can retailers drive climate change action?

    If you owned 900 million square feet of rooftop space and could cover half of it with photovoltaics, do you think that might make a meaningful difference in the nation's energy production? That's the situation Walmart finds itself in today with its 5,000+ stores and 150+ distribution center locations. Failing to capture the available solar energy that falls on those buildings every day is a waste of epic proportions. Sure it's a non-trivial undertaking to outfit its physical plant with that many solar panels. Those things are not free. But the financial incentive seems clear to me. Kilowatts are the largest variable cost for retailers after labor. And electricity is just one relevant dimension where Walmart must consider its environmental impact. Transportation is another, are are the practices of its suppliers. Then there's the matter of corporate citizenship to consider. When your footprint on the society is that vast, every operational decision you make has a magnified consequence on health and prosperity. Walmart appears to grasp that zero-emissions is necessary and attainable goal. The company may be acting in self-interest, but at the scale at which it operates, sometimes self-interest can also be the world's interest.
  • Posted on: 09/24/2020

    Will homes of the future include ‘Amazon Rooms’?

    Excuse me while I stroke my grey beard and offer a history lesson. The concept of a secure, unattended home-delivery locker first came to my attention circa 1998, when I covered an outfit called Port. Essentially a steel box bolted to the front or back stoop of a home, the solution was not temperature controlled, so okay for dry cleaning but not great for perishables. Around the same time, online grocery pioneer Streamline was making unattended deliveries to partially-refrigerated cabinets installed in home garages in the tonier suburbs of Boston. There was also discussion (probably by me) of a through-the wall delivery box that would allow deliveries through an exterior door. Contents could be later accessed through an interior door. I called it an "air-lock" concept. These might work as retro-fits to existing private homes. None of these ideas was motivated by a concern for sanitation or decontamination. Now the Amazon Room idea discussed here, it may be argued, is essentially a larger-scale "air-lock" or Streamline cabinet. Celebrities who fear they may be targeted by stalkers may install such facilities next to their safe rooms if if makes them feel more secure. I suppose if your residence (or your ego) is vast enough to require a service entrance....
  • Posted on: 09/23/2020

    COVID-19 may push retailers to use voice assistants instead of touch screens

    Welcome to noisy! There is no doubt in my mind that voice interactions will become ubiquitous over the next few years. We should not make the strategic error of handicapping present very early experiments as if this were already a mature technology. Voice interfaces and Natural Language Processing are getting a lot better, very fast. (Did you hear that, Alexa?) In the retail kiosk and POS environment, voice will be additive to touch, not a complete replacement. Good thing because food courts can have awful acoustics and outdoor locations resonate with wind noise and passing sirens and the like. Not long from now, however, smart electronic ears will be able to understand us better than people can, even in poor sonic conditions. Folks will decide how to interact in each encounter according to usability, convenience and privacy preferences -- even mixing voice, touch, gestures, NFC card taps, and mobile connectivity in the same interaction. The AI digital entities still have a lot to learn until they can accurately interpret vaguely worded queries, understand accents, and curate their responses. Then there is the matter of trust, privacy and interoperability standards. To learn about this, check out the Open Voice Network. (Notice I never mentioned COVID in this comment? Voice computing is coming fast, with or without fear of dirty touchscreens.)
  • Posted on: 09/22/2020

    Grocers are primed to compete with Amazon’s free grocery delivery

    Agree. Tacking on new inventory management and order fulfillment processes to stores built for the self-service paradigm of the 1950s leads to high costs and service compromises. "Semi-dark" stores -- with the fresh foods party in the front and the micro-fulfillment business in the back -- could well be the winning approach. I'd go a step further to incorporate a super-efficient delivery process using a "bus-route" arrangement that covers neighborhoods around each store twice a day. Then offer to co-deliver orders for other local retailers, dry cleaners, pharmacies, etc. This would put the new supermarket front-and-center in customers' daily lives.
  • Posted on: 09/17/2020

    Amazon Fresh grocery store opens touting low prices and cashier-free checkout

    While the wonder and excitement about this Amazon Fresh store are notable, I'm just as curious about its conventional elements. Touch-less checkout and smart shopping carts are futuristic, certainly, as is liberal use of in-store sensing and AI. Yet this is still very much a supermarket with traditional aisles, departments and a very familiar-looking promotional circular. So while some of the shopper-facing tech is novel and exciting, I'm at least as interested in observing how competently Amazon Fresh will manage space, assortment, pricing, inventory management, private labels, shopper loyalty and personalization — not to mention digital order fulfillment, cost of operations, and real estate strategy. These are familiar and expected elements of the grocery shopping experience. For Amazon Fresh to make a mark, its performance must be equal to or better than the best of breed in all those dimensions. That's a big ask for a startup, no matter how deep its pockets. For now, I choose to suppress my "gee-whiz" response to the in-store tech and keep an eye on the rest. Amazon is celebrating what's different about this store. I'm waiting to see evidence about what's better.
  • Posted on: 09/14/2020

    Will locals choose Brooklyn over Bezos?

    I love the "shop local" intention of Cinch Market and applaud its cheeky call-out of the Amazon founder. It will likely stumble at scale, however, due to the disconnect between local shop inventory data and the digital shopping interface. Instacart, Shipt and their rivals struggle with this issue providing similar services for shoppers at far more sophisticated retailers. Their OOS rates can never be better than the stores where they fulfill and the processes for handling substitutions are time-consuming and unwieldy. Can Cinch improve on this to a significant degree? The new service proposes to fulfill orders with fulfillment visits across multiple local merchants who have far less effective inventory visibility. At $20-25 per hour, this is an expensive way to keep pantries stocked. For individual specialty and gift items, the math might work out a bit better. Certainly, some of the target households in its upscale zip codes will be willing to pay the freight, if the service is quick and accurate. It might work brilliantly if Cinch Market provides participating local merchants with a perpetual inventory tool that syncs in real time with the digital shopping platform.
  • Posted on: 09/01/2020

    Grocers shift gears as stimulus stalemate tightens consumer spending

    When it comes to understanding pandemic grocery shopping, it's not just about "how much." It's also about "how." For many households, less-frequent stock-up trips at the primary supermarket have prevailed versus numerous smaller shops at several stores. Those bigger baskets are different in several dimensions: fewer promoted items, fewer prepared ready-to-eat meals, more shelf-stable and frozen foods. If money gets tighter for lower income households, especially, grocers may feel some pressure to resume TPR deals on some high-demand items that are boosting margins at present. A little competitive verve is a good thing for shoppers. The stores where folks can afford to stock their whole pantry for a week will likely win the trips.
  • Posted on: 08/24/2020

    Should restaurants charge a pandemic fee?

    My initial gut reaction to the concept of COVID surcharges in restaurants was, "Sure, let customers know what they are paying for with complete transparency." On reflection, however, I see how putting this into practice creates a distracting and negative communications cycle for every transaction. Who wants to commence a meal with a conversation about extra fees? So, I conclude that I must side with the folks here who recommend building the new customer care expenses into the food prices. Twenty-five cents per item could be enough. But I'd add a wrinkle: Let customers know why the prices have increased. A little message on the menu and the web site could do the trick, to wit: "We want you to know that we are passing along some of the customer care costs that we have incurred recently with slightly higher prices. This protects your well-being when you visit or order from us, while enabling us to keep our staff safely employed and our doors open."

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