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: 06/02/2020

    Nordstrom crushes inventory optimization

    As you wisely observe, Gene, retail is very much about PACE. Those who turn the money fastest tend to win. Excess inventory is cash moving so slowly that it actually shrinks. With its quick decisions, it seems like Nordstrom has won the current round of inventory "hot-potato," leaving many of its suppliers burned.
  • Posted on: 05/28/2020

    Do retailers need ‘trickle up economics’ to beat COVID-19?

    This one makes my blood boil a little -- not because regular folks didn't need the lifeline from the stimulus checks, but because the economists actually believed they would spend the cash on cars and other high-ticket items! If recent experiences prove anything it is this: Those pundits need to climb down from the ivory tower and take a first-hand look at how millions of minimum-wage earners actually live. Most of their stimulus checks went to rent, groceries and power bills. "Trickle down" has always been a condescending philosophy, and the notion that the working poor are all inept at handling money is despicable. That said, certainly it is in the national interest to protect our industries and the people they employ from economic harm. Rather than continue to slather the powerful with gobs of cash, I'd use government contracts to harness their initiative toward invention, infrastructure, new job creation, and diversification from highly-refined commodities. If that sounds intrusive, so be it.
  • Posted on: 05/26/2020

    Should Apple and other stores require shopper temperature checks?

    Let's stipulate that a front door temperature check provides a less-than-statistically-perfect indicator of latent infection. Does that completely negate its value? I think not:
    • It will reduce (not eliminate) the likelihood of viral transmission. Since pandemic control is a game of statistics, any activities that tend to improve the odds should be pursued.
    • Along with required masks and extra surface disinfection, it sends a message about the retailer's concern for its shoppers and employees. This is more than "signalling" but also much less than a guarantee. It is part of providing a safer environment for all.
    • It will flag a few individuals who are truly at risk, so they can be steered toward more definitive diagnosis and treatment options before they get sicker or infect many others.
    • In environments where close personal interaction is anticipated (think hair salons, barber shops, medical offices, and even Apple stores), the risk is intrinsically greater, therefore any and all steps to limit likelihood of transmission should be pursued.
    Shoppers who object on the basis of personal freedom should be reminded that they are indeed free -- to go elsewhere.
  • Posted on: 05/22/2020

    New marketing analytics for a new COVID-19 reality

    This is a very important discussion -- not only for advertising and promotion decision makers, but also for any professional who is trying to map a path forward in merchandising, category management, fulfillment, even store operations. There is no choice but to hit the reset button on most of the analytical tools we depend upon in the retail-consumer products industry. The past has been disconnected from the present by the pandemic, and the future has yet to be defined. Planning for assortment, space, pricing, promotion, and replenishment must be re-started from a blank slate. A worrisome prospect, to be sure, but it also means an opportunity to test scenarios and build a data foundation that will support more accurate decision making over the coming months and beyond.
  • Posted on: 05/18/2020

    The new normal will look a lot like the old normal

    Nothing feels quite "normal" in retail at this moment, but I mostly agree with Warren's premise that many fundamentals will return in the months to come. Still, the pandemic is a bell that cannot be un-rung, and I would expect some business practices and shopper behaviors to exhibit enduring changes, as identified here. I'm particularly hopeful that present experiences result in a lasting elevation in stature for store workers. When management signals their importance in the store by protecting their safety, enabling their success, and compensating them well, at least some shoppers will take the hint. I'm reminded of the lyrics from a rock and roll classic by The Who: "Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss. We don't get fooled again."
  • Posted on: 05/18/2020

    The new normal will look a lot like the old normal

    I'm Bob on this one, Ken. The surge in online grocery ordering has exposed its inadequacies. For many new e-commerce shoppers it has been a bad first impression.There may be some tailwind, but I'd caution strategic planners not to assume too much.
  • Posted on: 05/15/2020

    Are Amazon’s at-cost face shields an act of goodwill or predatory behavior?

    While it's not inappropriate to examine every move Amazon makes with a skeptical eye, I'd give their face-shields initiative a moderately positive review. So long as the company is focusing distribution on healthcare entities, I'm fine with their at-cost pricing. Those folks need PPE and I'm fine with Amazon undercutting the predators out there. I'll reserve judgement regarding what happens if they begin offering the product to the general market. Perhaps they have plans to license the design to manufacturers in the future, at which time normal competition will keep prices in check. As others here observe, this represents a tiny market sector for a very big company, so I don't smell any conspiracy.
  • Posted on: 05/13/2020

    Where can robots assist in retail’s COVID-19 efforts?

    Those had better be some powerful UV bulbs if they are going to be effective. Far better to add misting systems to floor-cleaning 'bots. (There are suitable, safe disinfectants available.) Either way, this must be performed while there are no humans in proximity.
  • Posted on: 05/11/2020

    What should retailers do about social distancing renegades?

    It's patently unfair to ask store clerks to enforce sanitary and social distancing rules on the fly in the retail environment. Just as we prohibit them from tackling shoplifters, we cannot ask them to direct shopper behaviors. That's what uniformed security personnel are for. But we can require masks on all employees. Period. And we can direct employees to refuse service to any customer who does not wear one. Put this phrase in your COVID-19 training manual: "I'm sorry, I'm not permitted to help you as long as you are not masked, because it endangers me and other shoppers." Masks are a crucial element of the social contract. They are far more effective at protecting others than ourselves. That's why we must all honor and protect each other by complying with this new behavioral norm. Retailers have a role to play in communicating and reinforcing this.
  • Posted on: 05/07/2020

    Is it time to move beyond ‘now more than ever’ COVID-19 commercials?

    Thanks for focusing us on this bit of video, Tom. It made its point and it made me chuckle. Slight quibble about calling this a "parody" however -- it's real stuff, just amplified by repetition into a social statement. Advertising creatives should take this as a sign that they are not always the original thinkers they claim to be. Going forward, they would do well to shift to fact-based communications that answer some burning questions for consumers, like:
    • "How has your brand responded so far?"
    • "When can we get more of your product that the stores ran out of?"
    • "How are you taking care of your workers?"
    • "How can your brand help me?"
    And if you have any fortune-tellers in your strategic planning department:
    • "How will your brand make things better for me down the road?
  • Posted on: 05/07/2020

    Is it time to move beyond ‘now more than ever’ COVID-19 commercials?

    I would agree, Ben, except that so few companies have a concrete idea about when the good times will return or what they are going to do to get there. At least their ad buys are keeping the TV networks afloat.
  • Posted on: 05/05/2020

    Will free listings elevate Google Shopping?

    Google Shopping has potential to catch up quickly on product search. It can innovate on the payment front with PayPal. It so far has little to offer on the fulfillment and delivery front, however. It makes me wonder how soon we will see distribution facilities open with Google on the facade. For me, that would be evidence of a real commitment.
  • Posted on: 05/04/2020

    Should face masks be mandatory for shoppers?

    Masks mainly protect others from our droplets. In the present circumstance, wearing one in public is essential citizenship. They should be required in public spaces for the foreseeable future in order to slow the pandemic. Retailers cannot be permitted to leave this decision to individual workers. The choice must be, mask or go home. Same for shoppers -- "no shirt, no shoes, no mask, no entry." Clear and simple. Of course this policy will have harsher impact on salons, restaurants and cosmetics counters. To gain a clear understanding of the epidemiological principles behind this, review this link.
  • Posted on: 04/20/2020

    Is America’s food supply chain nearing its breaking point?

    While there are a few worrisome developments -- like the temporary closure of some meat packing facilities, and irregular demand for produce that has resulted in tragic waste -- overall, I believe the nation's food industry has weathered the present crisis commendably well so far. Most of the worst issues have to do with plentiful products in the wrong package forms or places at critical moments. True, our just-in-time supply chain has proven to be somewhat brittle, but most grocery stores have plenty of product overall. These issues are not easily corrected within the last two steps of the supply chain (D.C. and stores). Safety stock is not a responsible answer. It ties up cash and leads to excess handling, spoilage, and ultimately higher consumer prices. At the growing and packing stages, however, there is now a fresh argument for more built-in flexibility. If restaurant demand for fresh veggies is suspended, producers need to make nimble shifts to alternative packaging so the items can be re-distributed to stores and food banks. Meat-packing facilities need to engineer and adopt safer practices so their workers can stay healthy at work and stay home when ill.
  • Posted on: 04/16/2020

    What will be retail’s new normal if social distancing stays in place until 2022?

    It's time we accepted that Pandora's box has been opened and COVID-19 is never going back inside. The relevant question is not "How will people live after this is over?" It is, "How will people learn to live with this?" This is heartbreaking and horrifying, and it puts us all in an impossible situation at least until an effective vaccine can be administered to 6 billion people. Maybe much longer, since this is surely not the last fast-moving novel illness we shall ever see. At some point some parts of the world could face excruciating choices that weigh deaths from starvation versus deaths from the present disease. I don't care so much about shareholder values, but a healthy consumer economy is tantamount to a healthy population. Many types of consumer-facing businesses may find their business models are in conflict with new standards of public safety. Independent tavern, restaurant and salon owners are already being hit hardest. In better times, these establishments are the antidote to social distancing.

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