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: 08/03/2020

    Trader Joe’s says ‘never mind’ on private label name changes

    Like some others here, I was a little surprised to learn that TJ's decided to stand fast on the ethnic branding issue. The whole matter could have been addressed by changing a single word on a few dozen product labels. I suppose it's possible the company made the effort to honestly investigate actual shopper sentiment about its "whimsical" store brands and learned that there was no significant push-back. It's also possible that TJ's management decided it would not be bullied by a group of non-shoppers. I'm no fan of "cancel culture" but I do believe consumer-facing companies must be conscious of the evolving semiotics of their brands. What seemed "light-hearted" yesterday may be odious today. Benign intent is no antidote to this.
  • Posted on: 07/28/2020

    What can you learn about ecommerce sales driving on the NJ Turnpike?

    "Counting the trucks on the New Jersey Turnpike -- They've all come to sell to America." (Apologies to Paul Simon.) Amazon's 20,000 or so 18-wheelers aren't en route to home deliveries, of course. They are moving pallet-loads of goods between its D.C.s, local fulfillment centers, and likely facilities near Newark Airport. Amazon's local delivery fleet consists of another 30,000 vans that lurk in neighborhoods like mine daily. That adds up to a lot of merchandise in motion.
  • Posted on: 07/27/2020

    Are boycotts becoming bigger risks?

    Boycotts are so easy to initiate via social media that we may be assured of their proliferation for years to come. But counter-movements are equally easy to create, and I can imagine a sub-rosa industry devoted to this activity. A social media post is the bumper-sticker of our age (thanks Warren for reminding us). It can garner many views fast, but it can also be drowned out in the cacophony. Corporations and brands need to be circumspect about aligning with one political stripe or another. At some point, however, neutrality becomes impossible. Truth-telling always has consequences.
  • Posted on: 07/22/2020

    It is a different year. Walmart is closing on Thanksgiving.

    When I spotted Walmart's latest announcement this morning, a strange sort of serenity came over me. Is this the same retail juggernaut we all love and fear? I totally support their decision to close on T-Day. Workers and shoppers both need a break once in a while. Gathering with family and close friends (in small socially-distanced groups with thoroughly washed hands) has never been more needed than it will be this year. The ultra-motivated can always go digital after dinner if they can't wait for Black Friday mayhem. It begs the question: Is our national secular holiday equal in weight to Christmas Day (the only other day Walmart stores are closed)? The announced employee bonuses won't change many lives, but the extra cash is more than a gesture. Not every retailer can or will follow the examples, but the nation's largest employer sets the tone for many.
  • Posted on: 07/21/2020

    Will wholesaling change L.L.Bean for the better?

    I think the key elements for L.L.Bean's new ventures with retail partners must be selectivity and control of the manufacturing. Don't allow others to slap the logo on licensed junk that will damage the brand's quality perception. Select a few signature items for sale in Nordstrom's shoe departments or offer custom-embroidered polo shirts through Staples. Package everything with a tag that invites customers to "find the rest" at the L.L.Bean online store. Provide some POP materials for your retail partners too, to further strengthen the brand.
  • Posted on: 07/21/2020

    Can Trader Joe’s shake off its racist branding tag?

    The TJ's private brands in question did use easy ethnic stereotypes in their branding. Certainly without intend to offend, but perception is reality. It's fine, really, for the company to change "Trader Ming's" et al to "Trader Joe's." Most shoppers will barely notice a few letters changed on the logos and the few who care passionately can feel vindicated. Just make the edits and carry on. Putting the obvious racism of Aunt Jemima behind us, there remain an awful lot of ethnic food brands in supermarkets that are owned and distributed by large companies that have no particular ethnic identity themselves. In a few instances, those may reflect a true brand heritage. Some others were simply dreamed up by product marketers. Should these also be subject to withering review?
  • Posted on: 07/17/2020

    Struggling retailers lay off workers and pay millions in executive bonuses

    These executive bonuses are worse than "bad optics" I think. In times of retail business contraction, they amount to a disproportionate transfer of wealth from front line workers to executive management. The counter argument that such bonus terms are required to attract and keep executive talent is pretty thin too. In the present tough economy, these payouts are looking more like "failure insurance" than rewards for good performance. I wonder if the contract terms that enable this practice could be subject to legal challenge. Shareholders and creditors may have greater means to take action than suddenly unemployed store clerks.
  • Posted on: 07/16/2020

    Is a federal $15 minimum wage virtually a done deal?

    I have witnessed bitter resistance to raising the minimum wage in the eyes of a group of restaurateurs here in Arizona. Not pretty. I think the time has come, however. We are learning from the pandemic just how many working families are desperately dependent on one or more low-wage service jobs to survive. When the kids are suddenly home from school and better-off citizens are staying home, those workers are bearing the brunt. Consider the math: $15 an hour adds to $30K per year. Not a fortune, but enough for a single parent to house, feed and raise a child. Maybe own a used car too, if the worker is disciplined. How anybody could be managing on $7.25 an hour is beyond me. Smarter retailers understand that chronically stressed, disrespected workers cannot deliver a quality shopping experience. Money = relief and respect.
  • Posted on: 07/15/2020

    Did Amazon just put its Go technology in a shopping cart?

    Who needs autonomous inventory scanning robots when you have an army of shoppers pushing sensor-festooned carts all around the store? Amazon Dash Cart is more than a contactless payment solution -- it's an in-store sensing solution. This makes me believe Dash carts could replace the numerous ceiling-mounted and shelf-edge sensors and cameras that are a central feature of the Amazon Go stores. Since each shopper links their mobile device with the cart using the app, it creates a promising channel for personalized promotions, behavior tracking, and "what aisle?" queries. The user experience looks like a bit of work, however. Items still need to be passed in front of the scanner one by one and PLU numbers entered manually! Lucky for Amazon that their pockets are deep. I forecast a long learning curve.
  • Posted on: 07/14/2020

    Will battery power energize retailing performance?

    Forget batteries. Wireless power is the true game-changer for retail. The tech is already viable, safe, secure, and cost effective. ESLs, inventory scanners, sensing devices, mobile phones, even power-hungry digital signage can be supported. I asked a variety of ESL and sensor manufacturers about this potential at NRF last January. Most were aware of wireless power tech, but resistant because their current offerings depend on the use of batteries or wiring tracks. It will be interesting to see how quickly they can adapt in a wireless world.
  • Posted on: 07/13/2020

    Will Boomers and Gen X keep shopping online post-pandemic?

    Any time I review a study that reports how consumers say they will shop in the future, I am skeptical. The choice between online shopping and in-store shopping is always a trade-off from the perspective of convenience and timing. Just because some folks have resorted to digital shopping for the first time during the pandemic does not mean they will prefer it henceforth. It does, however, widen the set of acceptable choices for shoppers who previously were averse to online ordering. Single item orders from Amazon (like the USB-c and CAT-8 cables I recently purchased for my home network) are indeed much easier to make online. The weekly grocery order is much more challenging and it requires the shopper to visualize their planned consumption rather than respond to merchandising cues experienced in the store environment. Shopping preferences will (have) surely be altered from this point forward, but it would be foolish to project the slope of the short-term spike we have seen in the past half-year. More online shopping experiences translate to both positive and negative experiences for consumers.
  • Posted on: 07/13/2020

    Is Uber/Postmates a bigger deal for restaurant or grocery delivery?

    The third-party food delivery business remains immature and its share of the take is unsustainable for the restaurants (who only lose a dollar or two on each delivery, but make up for it in volume). Gene has that part exactly right. Creating a separate delivery menu may not be practical for many restaurateurs, whose businesses are already too complicated as it is. In our home we have deliberately avoided using third-party deliveries out of respect and concern for our favorite local operators. Take-out or first-party delivery (with generous tips for both) is the only way we play. With regard to grocery delivery, I've long maintained that third-party shopping services are a poor value for most consumers. I've never liked seeing retailers hand over their shopper relationships to expensive outsiders who introduce service errors and substitutions to nearly every transaction. Third-party delivery of click-and-collect orders fulfilled by the grocer is another matter. Here is where Uber/Postmates may serve a useful role. Delivery pricing must be transparent to the end user for this to be an effective business model.
  • Posted on: 07/10/2020

    Retailers need way more fulfillment space to keep up with booming online sales

    It's always a risky practice to forecast the future based on short-term recent events. The shift to digital retail has certainly accelerated ahead of expectation in the past 6 months, but the increase in consumer trial does not mean the rate of growth will continue in perpetuity. There could even be a back-track of some online shopper behavior once the pandemic eases. This puts surviving retailers in a quandary. Should they equip for sustained headlong expansion in online order fulfillment? Or should they take less aggressive steps? No doubt, there are ample opportunities to re-purpose excess retail square footage into fulfillment facilities. Larger retailers may employ a combination of methods to get this done:
    • They may install micro-fulfillment centers in the back rooms of existing large stores while reducing showroom space.
    • They may convert some existing retail locations in to "dark" stores designated exclusively to local fulfillment.
    • They may take over large existing retail spaces, including shuttered mall anchors that are well-located, and install equipment to maximize fulfillment efficiency.
    • They may construct new bespoke fulfillment centers from the ground up, or in existing warehouse or industrial spaces that have become available due to recent economic disruption.
    All these options are capital intensive, due in large measure to the cost of the required high-tech equipment. This means it will be hard to walk back these decisions if the present sharp upward trend slows sharply after the pandemic. The question on the table for retail executives is not "Should we?" but "How fast and how far?" The right answer will differ by class of trade, scale of the business, and each retailer's brand positioning and financial condition.
  • Posted on: 07/08/2020

    What white people need to know

    I'm quite certain I need more education about these issues. I used to believe that sincere good will should be enough. Now I grasp that passivity about racial privilege only serves to perpetuate it. And all this time I thought I was one of the good guys! On the subject of progress in our industry, it's clear that the conversation about race is moving in the right direction for many of us. Meaningful actions, however, are lagging. Picture if you will, the attendees at industry events you have attended in the past few years (remember them?). Were the faces of the attendees even slightly representative of the ethnic mix that we are supposed to be serving? How about the faces of the "experts" at the podium? I believe we (I) can do better. Inclusion policies and training will help. But it takes force of will to undo a reflex. Ideally we will change because we want to. I'll settle for just adopting new behaviors and discovering the motivation later.
  • Posted on: 07/06/2020

    Will Wegmans need a post-pandemic makeover?

    Wegmans (and many other smart grocers) have learned from the pandemic shortages that shoppers are more flexible than we thought about their item preferences. Reducing assortments by limiting varieties within brands or categories is a prudent step -- for now. It seems clear now that the impact of COVID-19 shopping behaviors in grocery will be a long-lasting phenomenon, not just a "terrible spring." Wegmans' recent changes reflect that -- for now -- and we may be assured this very smart company will make additional adjustments in the future, as market conditions dictate.

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