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: 11/29/2022

    Amazon and Asda go head-to-head in RetailWire’s Christmas Commercial Challenge

    These spots aim for the heartstrings in different ways. The Asda story is light and goofy, while the Amazon piece seems to have a sad backstory. There's little mystery about Will Ferrell's elf, but the source of little girl's snow globe obsession is never revealed. For me this is a close call. Ultimately I responded more to the father's love in the Amazon ad more than the elfin frenzy at Asda.
  • Posted on: 11/23/2022

    Do digital coupons discriminate against those who can least afford it?

    Lots said here about the intent and mechanism of digital offers. Less about the outcomes -- intended and unintended. Of course retailers and brands benefit from a coupon distribution mechanism that can be precisely targeted, metered, and measured. But they know full well that digital methods will not reach a segment of the population who either can't or don't want to engage in gamified shopping. A question worth asking: Do they value those segments? I think they should. Legacy promotion methods -- store circulars, newspaper inserts, online printable coupons, even kiosks -- are all still effective, even if they use paper and generate less precise data. For the tech-averse, a plastic frequent shopper card remains a sound alternative mechanism for retaining access to in-store price promotions known as TPRs, which typically require loyalty membership these days. They generate usage data too.
  • Posted on: 11/23/2022

    Do digital coupons discriminate against those who can least afford it?

    (Those kiosks in Lucky Stores were made by a company called Interact, which was bankrupted when they were suddenly kicked out as part of the Albertsons-American Stores merger.)
  • Posted on: 11/22/2022

    Will John Lewis or Publix win the RetailWire Christmas Commercial Challenge?

    Both are well-made feel-good stories. I give the John Lewis spot the edge. The protagonist's quest to master skateboarding demands attention. It seems foolish until his true motivation is revealed at the end. The motive of the characters in the Publix ad is heartwarming, but much more expected. In the charity hierarchy, kindness to strangers ranks slightly above kindness to family. During the holidays it behooves us to find ways to do both.
  • Posted on: 11/14/2022

    Will retailers use facial recognition tech to reshape store layouts?

    In-store video surveillance is a lightning rod for privacy zealots, as it should be. Fold in the multicultural watch-outs others describe here and you have a formula for legal peril in numerous jurisdictions, compounded by less-than-reliable data. Perversely, training the AI over time to attain greater accuracy in reading facial sentiment and individual demographics further compounds the promise of anonymity, while creating a tempting target for data thieves. Just because it may be technically possible to use video analytics to monitor shopper behaviors in this manner doesn't mean it will be acceptable in a free society. There are other approaches to optimize space management, assortment, planogram and pricing decisions that won't open retailers up to fines and lawsuits or create an overwhelming data security imperative.
  • Posted on: 11/11/2022

    Is Trader Joe’s success formula becoming obsolete?

    I'm a big fan of TJ's and I totally appreciate the uniqueness of its merchandising approach and its commitment to simplicity in its operational model. Adding ecommerce to the mix would increase operational costs and change the behavior of some shoppers -- for better and worse. It would be madness to try to cram online order fulfillment into its compact footprint locations. But -- and this is a big one -- rigid retail formulas tend to become road-kill when the market throws them a curve. Shopper expectations are changing, and the absence of a digital option will be perceived by some as indifference to their preferences. Trader Joe's may not be able to detect this yet, since they collect no shopper loyalty data to track trends, but we can intuit that it affects shopper choices -- especially among the younger cohorts. What can this extraordinary retailer do? A dark-store ecommerce strategy might be a smart first play. No modification of existing stores would be needed to test this in a few markets. Existing distribution systems would work well. The learnings could be of immense strategic significance, and the experiment would be reversible if it proves unpopular with shoppers. I suspect they would discover a whole cadre of shoppers who are attracted by both their exceptional merchandising and the digital option.
  • Posted on: 11/09/2022

    Is transactional data the key to understanding retail customer behavior?

    There's plenty to like about making more systematic use of transaction data to understand retail business health. The customer-base audit is a natural adjunct to the widely-used Lifetime Customer Value discipline. I have mad respect for Dr. Fader and I like this "5 lenses" cohort analysis approach that seeks to establish and track some fundamental facts about purchase trends. Are newer customers buying differently compared with older customers? Are purchases of certain products associated with greater LTV? How is your customer acquisition trending? Are existing customers changing their purchase behavior? These descriptive measures belong on the BI dashboards of senior management. They will help bring key trends to the surface. Getting to "why" is the role of other marketing methods, including attitudinal, sentiment, loyalty and behaviors outside the retailer's "walled garden."
  • Posted on: 11/04/2022

    Will dynamic pricing work for restaurants?

    One of the core lessons from price optimization is the concept of caring for your "price image." This means conserving customer trust with prices are fair, consistent, and not changed too frequently. Last-minute air travelers grudgingly tolerate dynamic pricing because they have no choice. As a group, the airlines project a terrible price image. Sit-down restaurant patrons have options in the moment, and while they may respond positively to happy hour specials, they will likely resent peak-hour surcharges and vote with their feet. Quick-serve customers tend to know exactly what an item costs. Using surge pricing for queue management at the drive-up will only make people dislike you. Arguments at the window could disrupt the flow and even lead to abandoned transactions. ("Whaddya mean the price went up at 6:00? I got in line at 5:55!") So while it may be technically feasible to make time-based price changes on digital menu boards and sync those with the POS systems and smart-phone apps, I see more perils than advantages.
  • Posted on: 10/19/2022

    Can Amazon afford to keep churning through its frontline workers?

    Increasing pay scales will help Amazon for a time. (How about a "staircase" wage that increases in small increments every couple months to encourage experienced workers to stay on board?) As counterintuitive as it may seem, the company could eventually run out of fresh individuals to hire for its expanding operations. More automation is certainly one response (although it comes with a need for more trained technicians to maintain the robot fleet). Improving the job experience may be even more important than wages. Workers who feel cared for by their employers tend to be more loyal, so a hard look at sick leave policies seems essential. (Think about how critical this issue was in the recent railroad workers contract deal.)
  • Posted on: 10/19/2022

    Big retailers say they need more tech to deliver better customer experiences

    Retail tech is a how, not a what. To optimize customer experience, first get inventories right. In apparel, home furnishings and many nonfood categories, that means item-level RFID combined with real-time perpetual inventory. In food-drug-mass it means computer-generated replenishment ordering backed by advanced receiving practices and real-time perpetual inventory. Too many retailers habitually neglect inventory accuracy in the mad rush to implement digital selling, personalized offers and now retail media revenues. Both are massive challenges but often they are built atop shaky operational foundations. Slick digital and in-store experiences depend upon inventory accuracy and visibility. You can't deliver items you can't find. If you can't fulfill, then your endemic advertisers won't see an acceptable ROI from their retail media campaigns.
  • Posted on: 10/14/2022

    Kroger and Albertsons are merging

    This stunning deal is about creating a fully nationwide retail media network that can compete with Walmart, Amazon and Google for ad dollars. It is a signal of what I now believe will be a massive wave of M&A activity in the grocery in the coming 2-5 years. Of course it remains to be seen whether it will pass regulatory review, but I do not believe it's only about traditional forms of "synergy" we are used to hearing about when mergers are announced.
  • Posted on: 10/13/2022

    Why are Amazon’s brand knockoffs ‘foul play’ if other retailers do the same thing?

    A search of the USPTO Trademark database reveals roughly 2,500 brand marks owned or applied for by Amazon.com. This is an indication of the massive scope of Amazon's private brands program. (A few hundred of those are associated with its technology businesses. The rest are for consumer products.) Why I think this is important: Amazon is capable of creating competitive brands in just about every product category we can think of, working with contract manufacturers, of course. And as others here observe, it has access to unmatched shopper data that lets it identify best-selling and trending branded items. I believe this massive program may sometimes be "predatory" in spirit, if not under the law. Deserving the most sympathy are the scrappy innovators who use the the Amazon platform to launch and distribute new products only to find them copied as soon as they record some success. There's a fine line between private brands and knockoffs. Most retailers navigate carefully so as not to offend their important brand suppliers. Amazon seems less worried about this.
  • Posted on: 09/26/2022

    Rivals take notice as ads account for five percent of Amazon’s retail revenues

    "...convergence of in-store co-op and digital." Grocers would likely shudder to hear you say that, as their core retail media objective is to attract new digital advertising spend without giving up a single dime of the trade funds and allowances that have accounted for most of their store profits for decades.
  • Posted on: 09/26/2022

    Can Instacart marry in-store and online grocery shopping experiences?

    With its Connected Stores announcement last week, and its commitment to develop a Retail Media Network, announced by Simo in March, Instacart is working to cement its positioning as a trusted solution provider, not a competing grocery retailer. This is wise, I think. Mid-tier and strong regional supermarket chains are hard-pressed to match top-tier competitors when it comes to shopper experiences, media sales, and in-store technology. Crucial buy-versus-build decisions are being made now, as grocers seek to offset the costs of digital complexity by reducing store operating costs and adding alternative sources of revenue. Instacart is throwing a number of ideas against the wall here: The Carrot digital shelf tags are a neat take on a technology that has had slow adoption in the U.S. I like the addition of an app and blinker for way-finding, but envision aisles full of flashing lights.... The connected Caper Carts are the latest in a long series of "smart" cart concepts that date back to the 1990s. Maybe they will stick this time, but they use a lot of tech. Hope they are rain-proof. Scan & Pay is problematic for me. A lot of effort at the shelf to save a little effort at the front end. Out-of-stock/low stock detection is nothing particularly new. "Detect and remediate" solutions are insufficient -- unless paired with a perpetual inventory and forecasting engine that automates ordering and prevents most OOS. Mid-tier and regional supermarket operators will want to take a hard look at Instacart's basket of solutions, as they will need some versions of them to compete.
  • Posted on: 09/12/2022

    Is now the right or wrong time for retailers to invest big in their businesses?

    The critical question for retailers, it seems to me, is, "Invest in what?" Gone are the days when value creation for retailers came down to adding more square footage. Today, capital must flow into capabilities that can differentiate the business with shoppers and support profitability. My top three list includes: 1) Core operational systems for inventory, forecasting and ordering, data management and AI decision support. 2) Digital technology and order fulfillment infrastructure to support enhanced shopper experiences across all channels of interaction with the retail enterprise. 3) Retail media networks and/or shared platforms that can capture incremental revenues by offering personalized messaging with closed-loop measurement.

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