PROFILE

James Tenser

Retail Tech Marketing Strategist | B2B Expert Storytelling™ Guru | President, VSN Media LLC

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.

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  • Posted on: 06/30/2022

    Will consumers become even more frugal post-pandemic?

    There are three main constituencies of frugality — those who are desperate to economize, those who think they should, and those for whom bargain-hunting is a sport. I think we are mostly talking about that middle group here. In grocery we see evidence that many shoppers are shifting their choices to less pricey proteins, more store brands, and a preference for ingredients versus packaged prepared foods or restaurant meals. Inflation is the prime factor. Remember your "guns vs. butter" lecture from Econ 101? Right now the trade-off is more like "gas vs. steak." For what it's worth, media coverage of inflation seems to be hammering home the message that folks should keep an eye on their budget choices. I don't think that will slow consumers from patronizing Target's markdown sales or Amazon's Prime Day in the month ahead. Those purchases will feel like "bargains" to many, even if they are entirely non-essential.
  • Posted on: 06/28/2022

    Retailers tell their customers to keep their returns

    Within the context of a relationship with a "loyal" customer, credit without return is a smart policy. It would be quite easy to train an AI to flag the rare serial abusers who may be candidates for "as is" status. In reality, most returned merchandise is not returned to regular inventory anyway. High ticket items go to various reclamation centers where they are evaluated and remarketed as "factory refurbished." Garments and packaged goods likely go to land fill. Digital retailers would do well to consider how to adjust store return policies from the prior millennium to fit today's realities.
  • Posted on: 06/27/2022

    Are mall shoppers hungry for in-stock data?

    While the Simon Search app seems sincerely intended to serve shoppers better, in practice I see it like a tightrope across a valley of knives. There are so many ways for this to fail due to inaccurate or late data, inconsistent retailer cooperation, and simple user error that I fear much dissatisfaction will follow. When every tenant retailer in Simon malls has a fully functional real-time store inventory system in place I might change my mind about this. But for now this experiment feels like an error magnifier. I hope I'm eventually proven wrong.
  • Posted on: 06/22/2022

    Will Deal Days help Target clear its inventory?

    Target badly needs to clear its DCs and free up some inventory cash, so an early and deep Deal Days is a natural step. While its is competing head-to-head against Prime Day promotions, somehow I think a halo effect may come into play, with benefits for both. The announced promotion on grocery items seems like a separate tactic to me. I doubt Target really needs to sell down its food and beverage inventory much. This is about traffic and baskets. It should generate some nice stats, but it won't help so much with excess inventory in other categories.
  • Posted on: 06/21/2022

    Are retailers and consumers misaligned on trust?

    Consumer trust is earned incrementally and it is an outcome of well-considered policies and consistency of experience. CSR signaling may feel like virtue to corporate leaders (and some shareholders) but it can be perceived as hollow virtue signaling by consumers. Cynicism does not build trust. Disclosure does. Taking a true stand on environmental or social equity issues is very different from "green-washing" or (this month's favorite) "rainbow-washing." It's no wonder that consumers are skeptical. Corporations with a sincere interest can choose to make a difference if they are willing to invest. It can be tricky. Brands that take sides on divisive issues (even climate change) can risk alienating large market segments. The risk/reward calculus may be off-putting for CEOs who are also calculating their stock bonuses. Americans deeply mistrust public institutions and leaders, so it is no surprise to see study data that suggests their wariness spills over onto corporations.
  • Posted on: 06/20/2022

    Kroger CEO says customers are ‘rethinking their shopping’ habits

    Inflation is a pain for some of us, but it is close to an existential threat for many wage-earners who have seen their recent economic gains wiped away by rising fuel, rent, and food prices. When we examine inflation's impact and the imperatives it presents to food retailers, it is important to frame the conversation around the consumer segments they serve. Where well-heeled shoppers may switch to bulk packs of meat or poultry to save on the unit price, less advantaged shoppers may switch from gallons to half gallons of milk to manage their budgets (as Walmart reported recently). I don't know if these behavioral changes qualify as "changes in habit" so much as they reflect short term tactical responses by consumers. Mr. McMullen is accurate in pointing out that shoppers across the spectrum are being far more mindful of their purchase decisions, and therefore much more flexible in their choices. Inflation is inequitable. Retailers and brands need to demonstrate their commitment to all shoppers they serve. That likely means multiple, concurrent merchandising and pricing responses.
  • Posted on: 06/15/2022

    Are consumers going to take a vacation from buying things?

    Let's acknowledge that inflation is influencing consumers in lower income brackets very differently compared with those of us who actually have the luxury of choosing between experiences and goods. The shift to experience was well underway pre-pandemic for those with means and we should not be too surprised to observe that it continues -- despite skyrocketing fuel costs and airline ticket prices. Seems to be a case of pent-up demand and FOMO. Retailers can respond in at least some "aftermarket" categories like travel wear, luggage, baby strollers, sunglasses, photography gear, etc. Food and mass retailers might further tweak merchandise assortments (sunscreen endcaps?) at stores in resort locations. Omnichannel retailers and pharmacies could emphasize ultra-convenient product deliveries to hotel and resort guests. These tactics will win relatively few discretionary dollars compared with the costs of a vacation. Retailers will never persuade shoppers to un-budget precious family trips and outings with clever merchandising, nor should they try.
  • Posted on: 06/14/2022

    Has online grocery shopping hit its sales ceiling?

    Online grocery shopping has passed a temporary peak, but I wouldn't describe it as a "ceiling." Expect it to continue to increase at a measured pace. Many more shoppers discovered in the past two years that online grocery ordering is a useful tactic in their total pantry management strategies. The experiences weren't totally satisfactory all the time, but they were good enough. As the Law of Divided Loyalty tells us, all shoppers are split shoppers. They have always purchased from multiple food retailers to live their best lives. Now we see shoppers also blending their in-store and digital shopping tactics to suit their needs in each moment. Each will find their own equilibrium -- balancing cost, convenience, control, complexity and experience. We'll certainly continue to see generational differences in these behaviors. Younger, and more time-pressed households will find more value in digital shopping services. Older and less mobile shoppers have strong incentives for home delivery too. Retailers have no choice but to continue to invest in their in-store experiences. It's as hotly competitive as ever, and shoppers' expectations only increase. They need to keep refining their digital experiences too, because the name of the game is to capture the largest share of wallet possible.
  • Posted on: 06/07/2022

    Target isn’t wasting any time in cutting the glut from its inventory

    The means and methods for inventory optimization vary by department, and markdowns are an essential arrow in the quiver. It's worth remembering that Target (and Walmart too) is not one business, merchandise-wise. It can have too much cash tied up in excess apparel or appliances while it simultaneously scrambles to fill shelves with sufficient consumables and CPG. Also consider Peter's shrewd related observation here that more perishable products should be marked-down early, while some others may gain value in the warehouse during inflationary times. I like Target's timing and proactive stance. Looks like it is set up to offer some sharp price promotions just in time to compete with Amazon's Prime Day.
  • Posted on: 06/03/2022

    Circle K’s new self-checkouts are kicking barcode scanners to the curb

    Cool tech, but the picture tells the story. For transactions involving fewer than six items (or so) that fit on the scanning platform, the machine-vision functionality may well be ready for prime time. AC-T has evidently done the math or they would not be stepping up to a chain-wide rollout. Unless I am missing something, I do not see this as a solution for alcohol or tobacco sales in C-stores. It doesn't look to me like a better option for supermarkets than today's barcode scanning self checkout stations.
  • Posted on: 05/31/2022

    Why are retailers struggling so hard to balance inventory?

    So much to unpack about the present overstock problem. First: Financial. Excess inventory is money standing still. This is just as true in a container ship anchored offshore, on a truck queued at the border, in a retailer's D.C., or on store shelves. Free your cash or "agility" can never happen -- no matter what high-priced consultants you hire. Second: Operational. Retailers mostly suck at ordering, as near as I can see. There are some notable exceptions in grocery where perpetual inventory, forecasting and replenishment are handled using computer automation, but even the shining stars of the industry were thrown off their game by the COVID disruption. I suspect matters are far worse in sectors that depend on overseas manufacturing commitments, long-lead-times, and fashion trends. Third: Structural. I can't say this often enough. A supply chain that is built and fine-tuned for ultimate unit cost efficiency, scale, and centralization of process is inherently brittle. When one skewed container ship can close the Suez Canal for six days and disrupt the entire global shipping system, or when sanitary crisis in one plant can cause a national baby formula crisis, it is ridiculous to blame the ship captain or the plant manager. I'm on a bit of a crusade about this, I suppose. It's time to de-concentrate markets. Shorter production runs and lead times. Smaller, smarter, closer plants. Mass market economics and capital intensiveness are out of touch with the digital age. Is supply chain visibility essential? Absolutely. When the foundations crack as they have over the past two-and-a-half years, elaborate AI systems and heightened visibility don't change outcomes much -- they just provide an earlier and sharper view of the disaster. This is a digital age. It's time to start converting the supply chain into a local-focused supply web that is inherently more resilient and adaptable to change.
  • Posted on: 04/22/2022

    Amazon brings Prime power to other websites

    It goes beyond data-mining, I think, as this also could also broaden Amazon's Retail Media base by accessing more shopping interactions. Prime is above all an audience aggregation machine. Yes it will certainly add to the scale economies of Amazon's local delivery network, by sending out fuller vans. I am less clear about how shoppers will find their way directly to tens of thousands of Prime-affiliated online sellers if they do not begin by searching on Amazon.com. Perhaps this is a gambit to capture transactions that begin on other marketplaces?
  • Posted on: 04/19/2022

    Will Albertsons smell success with its Philadelphia Cream Cheese promo?

    Actual bakery aromas -- bread, vanilla, etc. -- are pleasant for most, but not all shoppers. In modern stores, I believe most of those scents are removed using exhaust systems, to protect workers and shoppers. Artificial fragrance diffusers may elicit a range of responses ranging from delight to disgust. Tread carefully on this one. How will lactose-intolerant shoppers respond to a cream cheese scent aura? I suppose that is one of many questions Kraft Heinz will try to answer with this trial promotion. On the plus side: This promotion seems to signal that the great cream cheese shortage of 2021 is now behind us.
  • Posted on: 04/19/2022

    Did stores prove their worth during the pandemic?

    As too often occurs with broad analyses of retail, this one from UBS needs to be de-constructed to be truly diagnostic. The trend varies greatly across classes of trade and product categories. I imagine that grocery, club and convenience store closures will not contribute much to the forecasted 40-50K closures, for example. Office supply, specialty apparel, and mall-anchor department stores are certainly at much greater risk, as the report indicates. A "rationalization" of store counts in those sectors is justified and not unhealthy, in my opinion. Hybrid shopping journeys will continue to rise in all sectors, and curbside pickup has proven its appeal for some (not all) purchase occasions. When shoppers choose to visit physical locations, they will be motivated by momentary need, personal preference, or hedonic benefits. Stores certainly "proved" their worth during the pandemic, but no proof was really needed. Each retail sector is now much closer to finding a natural equilibrium between digital and physical shopping, as shoppers master how to optimize each occasion.
  • Posted on: 04/07/2022

    Will JCPenney’s core customers come back and show their love?

    Can JCP's merchandising deliver on this promise? The new ads convey a giddy optimism that may actually persuade shoppers to return, but they d*** well better have the stores in shape when they arrive. I sincerely hope Mr. Rosen has a plan for that too. ITSS: It's the store, stupid!

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