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: 02/25/2020

    Amazon goes bigger with its cashier-less store concept

    I'm no Luddite, but I remain a skeptic about cashier-less shopping in full-scale supermarkets. Here's why: The systems demonstrated so far require significant changes in both shopper behavior and store operations. There's a clue in the tidbit about 49 cent (!) avocados. If the system precludes PLU (price look-up) merchandising that means perishable departments must be merchandised differently. (True, per-item produce is the norm at Trader Joe's, but for most supermarkets, it means making a major change.) Walk-away systems have greater potential in convenience and limited-assortment retail, mainly because they are less overwhelmed by intricacy. Supermarkets are the supreme test because they are the most data-intensive and fastest-paced environment in retail. This makes them irresistibly attractive to IT entrepreneurs (and Amazon too). So far, at least, cashier-less tech is too pricey and the impact within the selling environment is not yet well-studied. I think this will take longer than many people expect.
  • Posted on: 02/25/2020

    Was Burger King smart to showcase moldy Whoppers?

    An ad like the "Moldy Whopper" is likely to win awards, but not the appetites of consumers. The flurry of broadcast media and social media response says it all.
  • Posted on: 02/24/2020

    Should grocers just say ‘no’ to big CPG brands when it comes to shelf decisions?

    Brand marketers are the category experts. Retailers are the customer experts and they have final say on what appears on their shelves. Category advisers have an important place in the merchandising process, but a retailer who hands over the decision process entirely to a "captain" betrays their shoppers. The debating points restated in this discussion thread have many years of history. A few things have changed however, since CM was introduced ca. 1990. Most notable is the availability of actual shopper behavior data from loyalty programs, displacing syndicated consumer data and warehouse removal data as the basis of decision-making. In a truly collaborative process, brands and stores analyze that information to make store-level assortment decisions and design promotions that drive the retailer's business. This can be an extremely intricate process, so a major brand's know-how can be invaluable to a supermarket retailer with 350 categories to manage. Too-frequent changes can tax store labor and confuse shoppers, and self-dealing by brands can undermine outcomes for all. Ultimately it's the retailer's job to set the boundaries.
  • Posted on: 02/24/2020

    What are the biggest barriers to AI adoption for retailers?

    AI is beginning to shed its buzzword status, as more retailers put data scientists on the payroll. On its own AI is a hollow concept. In practice however, it can be the core of a host of new or improved operational and experiential retail practices. Hype tends to take over where more nuanced understanding is in short supply. So it is with artificial or machine intelligence. Learning systems present certain potential advantages compared with systems that operate based on human-designed algorithms. Retailers need to make the conversation around AI be more specific -- natural language systems, for example have very different purposes compared with image-recognition systems, automated analytics, or supply chain optimization systems. Starting to wince when I see images of robots used in this discussion. Here's a tip for the wary buyer: the more humanoid they look, the less intelligent they actually are.
  • Posted on: 02/21/2020

    What does private equity ownership hold for Victoria’s Secret?

    I have my doubts that new fiscal discipline can rescue a retail concept that has run its course. The "boudoir" sensibility of Victoria's Secret has simply lost relevance in today's marketplace. It will be a huge challenge to try to disassociate the brand from its historical image. If I were in charge, I'd probably drop the "Secret" from the banner, and try to remake Victoria's in an entirely new image after extensive consumer preference research.
  • Posted on: 02/21/2020

    Unilever will end marketing to young kids to fight childhood obesity

    Like all corporate social responsibility efforts, this one carries a tinge of self-interest. It's very decent of Unilever to step back from marketing its brands directly to children, but it also wants to sell a lot of ice cream. The fact remains that its portion-controlled ice cream novelties are made from highly refined ingredients, including sugars. Still, on balance I think the consuming public should welcome this declaration by Unilever. I hope the announced changes were developed based on active listening to its end-customers - that is, from solid market research. Experience has shown that CSR programs sometimes penetrate an organization's DNA and alter the culture in enduring ways. Consumers tend to reward better actors with brand loyalty. If Unilever gains market share, its competitors may feel pressure to respond with similar policies.
  • Posted on: 02/20/2020

    Are loyalty cards key to online-to-offline attribution?

    It's not the loyalty data per se, although that's valuable too. I think it's the connectivity that really matters. Attribution is the toughest challenge in promotion marketing today. Sorting out "what influenced this purchase?" is the key to optimizing media spending and optimizing promotion performance. I appreciate Kai's terminology: Loyalty programs can indeed serve as a "data bridge" that connects shopper behavior to their prior influences across digital and physical channels. I have called this phenomenon "The Incredible Dissolving Store" several times in the past. (It's the boundaries that are dissolving, not the relevance of physical retail.) Others have described various "moments of truth" along the meander from awareness to purchase. Linking those moments -- digital, in-store, and at-home -- requires some ability to recognize the same shopper at each moment of truth. Opt-in loyalty programs are presently the best available option for accomplishing this. Until the day shoppers are able to own, control and monetize their own personal data lock boxes, that's the best option we've got.
  • Posted on: 02/13/2020

    Will technology even the last-mile playing field with Amazon?

    Not to sound snarky, but doesn't everybody use “machine learning and optimization technology” these days? That includes With that off my chest, let me say that Deliverr may in fact be on to something here. The so-called "last mile" problem really isn't about the last mile, it's about how quick is the first step? The van can't drive any faster, so the one that leaves the nearest fulfillment center first wins the race.
  • Posted on: 02/13/2020

    Holy badgers! Target did what with a University of Minnesota onesie?

    What does Target plan to do with the recalled garments? Bury them in a land-fill? Donate them in third-world countries? Auction them off one at a time to collectors? I wonder how long it will take before some of these mis-printed onesies show up on eBay with breathtaking price tags.
  • Posted on: 02/12/2020

    Will Pop Up Grocer bring discovery to grocery retailing?

    Pop Up Grocer might find a niche in resort areas, where tourists on foot seek novel shopping experiences. Keep the focus on prepared, snack, and beverage items and open in beach towns, pedestrian malls, or maybe Fisherman's Wharf or the Vegas Strip. If it sticks to a conventional grocery store ambiance, however, I predict more lookers than buyers. I'd put the arm on the aspiring brands to bring imaginative visual merchandising to the party -- like the original STORY in Manhattan. Make it surprising, and you might turn it into a destination.
  • Posted on: 02/12/2020

    Will the FTC redefine anticompetitive behavior after its big tech acquisition inquiry?

    Acquisition of tech startups by giants is far less of a threat to consumers than the mergers of giants with giants. (Gene is spot-on in his observations.) The FTC's present focus smells fishy to me -- perhaps a red-herring to distract the population from the manipulations of telecom, agribusiness, defense and big pharma? I favor keeping taut reins on big digital too -- but the definition of "anti-competitive" needs to be modernized in this context. Does the accrual of vast amounts of personal consumer data result in widespread consumer harm and unfair competitive advantage? Do consumers have sufficient choice when it comes to shopping for internet access -- does that constitute a monopoly? When do technical standards (like operating systems) cross the line and become the equivalent of a cartel? I seriously doubt there is sufficient will or ability in Congress to re-examine the role and function of the FTC at present. The Sherman Antitrust Act was enacted in 1890; the Clayton Act in 1914. Circumstances have evolved in the last century but our laws have not kept up.
  • Posted on: 02/11/2020

    Will Staples’ new concept Connect with small business owners?

    Staples is facing an all-too-common chain retail challenge: Too many square feet chasing too few shopping trips. Converting some of that excess space into havens for value-added services seems like sound reasoning. But is there a sufficient customer base? Staples Connect is positioned as a "third place" concept for folks who are serious about meeting up and getting work done. It offers access to business equipment and technical advice, but it's not a full-time office space. So why would I subscribe? I rarely need to work outside my home office these days except to attend industry events. A pay-as-you go model (with an online reservations app for workspaces) would make more sense. I could see renting a podcast studio for 1-2 hours per week -- but how quickly would the fees exceed the cost of setting up the gear at home? The potential of Staples Connect comes down to a single question for me: How much revenue can it generate per square foot?
  • Posted on: 02/10/2020

    Why isn’t voice commerce taking off?

    Seems like we are talking about two realms of trust here: The first and most cited is the creepiness of an always-on, in-home listening device that may or may not be capturing personal details of our lives -- call it privacy-trust. The second is the absence of confirming feedback within the purchasing process itself, especially with respect to order accuracy, pricing, and product selection -- call it purchase-trust. Proponents of voice commerce are so busy defending their solutions from worries about privacy-trust that they seem to have largely looked past the issues of purchase-trust. They need to get both right. I'm not holding my breath.
  • Posted on: 02/10/2020

    Why are so many organic grocers landing in bankruptcy court?

    The simultaneous demise of Fairway, Lucky's Market and Earth Fare is not exactly a coincidence. All three took on too much leverage in pursuit of a rapid-expansion strategy. We've seen this tragic movie many times before: Its signature plot line is debt service that exceeds net profits. Why the rush to expand? Well, a few years ago organic grocery looked like the place investors wanted to be. If they could grow a chain's category share fast enough, it could be flipped to a much larger acquirer for a nice return. There were bound to be some casualties along the way. Major food chains with stronger financials stepped up with their own expanded organics lines. Price competition ensued. Even Kroger-backed Lucky's was on a slow path to negative ROI. Seems like these investors did the math at about the same time.
  • Posted on: 02/06/2020

    Should retailers brag about doing good?

    Yes, some CSR initiatives seem contrived -- because they are. Consumers generally will see through that and feel cynical about efforts that are more self-serving than charitable. But then something wonderful can happen along the way -- an organization that adopts a "doing well by doing good" program rooted in the profit motive sometimes also evolves its culture for the better. For retailers especially, interactions with the local communities are numerous and influential. Whether they sponsor local festivals, buy gear for youth soccer teams, or hire more disabled people, or eliminate plastic bags and containers, the impact can be felt in small ways on a daily basis. Espousing core values, such as environmental responsibility or diverse hiring, can become part of the organizational DNA over time. Part of the benefit to the public comes from sharing these accomplishments widely and creating positive inertia in the communities they serve. So it's OK to do some humble-bragging if you back it up with tangible accomplishments.

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