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: 01/14/2021

    Which emerging tech will transform marketing this year?

    I view Customer Data Platforms as the dark horse in this race. It's a relatively new idea to house comprehensive customer information in raw form so it can be accessed by BI dashboards, analytics engines and AI/cognitive platforms. Analytics are crucial, yes, but "analyze what?" is foundational.
  • Posted on: 01/13/2021

    Walmart to deliver groceries to temp-controlled smart boxes at customers’ homes

    The connected "milk box" and temperature controlled deliveries are not exactly a brand new idea. (See others here who remember Streamline fondly.) Walmart's pilot with HomeValet is a fact-finding mission, it seems to me. It will likely come down to specifications and execution. How big does the box need to be? Where do we put it? Does the homeowner control who accesses or Walmart only? I've got more: Who is responsible for digging it out of the snow? Can the customer use it to send out returns? Will its appearance be compatible with home décor? For new-built homes, I'd probably favor a "delivery airlock" setup instead -- with an exterior door that can be opened digitally by delivery people and an internal door that can be opened from the pantry, garage or laundry room. A key advantage would be the ability to accept larger items, even dry-cleaning on hangars. Temperature control is a good option, but may not be crucial. Walmart's smart delivery boxes could be a good solution for a segment of its customer base in suburban homes. Will it scale? I guess that's what the pilot intended to discover.
  • Posted on: 01/13/2021

    Walmart to deliver groceries to temp-controlled smart boxes at customers’ homes

    Thanks for invoking Streamline in this discussion, Paula. I reported on them extensively back in the day and was told then that its loyal patrons in the Boston suburbs were very sad when the service was discontinued. Some of us miss the milkman too.
  • Posted on: 01/11/2021

    Retailers give customers refunds and tell them to keep items

    I've had two experiences in recent months with items that arrived damaged. In both instances the ecommerce sellers looked at the photos I sent and shipped replacements free of charge without asking for returns. One of those was a $500 furniture item that weighed more than 100 lbs. They made good, but I was left with the problem of disposing of the unusable one! I understand the money math behind both companies' decisions, however, as described by Paula and other smart folks here. A household with multiple holiday gifts that need exchanging, due to wrong sizes or other "normal" preferences, could show up as a bad actor if sellers are not intelligent about evaluating their behavior. Other folks may read today's news as an invitation to game the system. Retailers will need to monitor this, of course. I'd bet they will.
  • Posted on: 01/08/2021

    Should your DNA data be used to sell products?

    Acknowledging the enormous "creep factor" associated with this notion, let me complicate the discussion about DNA-targeted marketing by posing the questions: To what end and for which products? What if revealing your genetic traits could enable pharmaceutical marketers to recommend preferred medicines for you on an individualized basis? Not all disease treatments work equally well for all individuals, so this might save your life. What if your DNA profile could enable marketers to recommend individualized food options that are more likely to preserve your well being and extend your life span? Would that have value? Continuing down the slippery slope: What if your DNA profile could enable marketers to better guess your flavor or color preferences and curate a more relevant product assortment? Is that worth something? Consumers will eventually weigh intrusiveness of sharing DNA data against perceived value received. As these potentials become more familiar and less strange, younger folks, especially, will likely be more receptive. Between now and then, I'd anticipate a spirited debate among regulators, ethicists and consumer advocates.
  • Posted on: 01/08/2021

    Shopify dumps Trump’s stores from its platform

    Yeah, I get the argument about how there should be no place for political debate in a forum about business, but (sadly) the present moment is an unavoidable exception. Social media platforms have awakened to the reality that they can be hijacked by bad actors into propagating dangerous, hateful and false ideas -- including corrosive political philosophies, rumors, and myths. Under public pressure, several have declined to continue to provide a channel for those voices. Shopify, it seems to me, has acted similarly by closing shops which traffic in hate symbols and dangerous politics. Justified and righteous in this extraordinary instance. When platforms take these actions, however, they also take on an enormous and solemn responsibility to exercise their power transparently and based on consistent application of policies and principles. This is costly to implement; it will cost some profits; and it will surely create a backlash.
  • Posted on: 01/05/2021

    Are local retailers ready to flex their omnichannel muscles?

    With few exceptions, I think local retailers and restaurants have little choice but to jump on the e-commerce bandwagon. The good news is, they have several platform options on which to build a presence. Amazon and Shopify are the most widely used marketplaces, but there are other ways worth considering too. In the grocery world, for example, there are probably a half-dozen specially designed solutions, with mobile apps included, that can be white-labeled. Every retailer needs some form of curbside pickup, at least. Many need a process to accept and ship online orders. Restaurateurs need a system that lets them bypass third party delivery services which soak up all the margins. Even independent service companies, like hair salons and barbers, can benefit from digital scheduling and payment tools. This requires some investment and a learning curve for a small business, but tools and help are not scarce. Local tech experts are plentiful these days too. Whether SMBs feel ready or not, it's time.
  • Posted on: 01/04/2021

    Will Giant Food’s shelf labels with diversity call-outs drive sales?

    While I'm certain that PR strategy figures in to the recent moves by Giant Food, Schnucks and Meijer to highlight minority-owned suppliers, what really matters here is how shoppers feel about it. Rather than pose the question: "Will it drive sales?" I'd prefer to ask, "Will it enhance shopper loyalty and trust?" If the answer to the latter question is "yes" then the new call-outs are a good idea.
  • Posted on: 01/04/2021

    Will store closings in 2021 beat last year’s record total?

    Once again we have a spirited conversation about "retailers" that could be clarified greatly by considering "which retailers." Yes, the nation is chronically "over-stored" but we need to understand the continuing contraction of retail space by sector and format. Several comments here show an understanding of this reality. QSRs and dollar stores are having a decent time of it. Supermarkets and Walmart have enjoyed a revenue boom. Home centers are banking cash. Specialty apparel and department stores are up against the wall, with numerous bankruptcies. Independent restaurants, coffee shops and taverns are being crushed. Enclosed malls have more dust bunnies than human visitors. In many categories, ecommerce players are filling the gaps. This may well add up to a greater number of retail closures in 2021 than in the grim year just ended, but the damage will continue to be unevenly distributed.
  • Posted on: 12/30/2020

    Is it time for retailers to reconsider Instacart?

    Supermarket chains adopted Instacart as a fast-track way to offer digital grocery ordering and delivery. Unintended consequences have included: margin erosion, intermediation of the shopper relationship, high rates of item substitutions and OOS. I know of one instance where a powerful retailer has "white-labeled" the Instacart platform to mitigate these consequences, but there are other good alternatives out there. Instacart deserves recognition for its impressive and rapid expansion. I have some doubts, however, about its long-term prospects. It's software is not that special, and retailers can't love having their people competing to fill orders at the shelves. In sum, I view 3rd-party fulfillment and delivery as a transitional business model. Instacart has been its superstar in grocery. As retailers evolve their store operating models to enable more efficient at-store order fulfillment using their own resources, I believe Instacart's sole remaining offering will be the delivery itself.
  • Posted on: 12/28/2020

    Should retail CEOs be on social media?

    I see more peril than payoff for retail CEOs who engage actively in social media. There are exceptions, of course, but dynamic business leaders should not have enough free time to consider and compose their own posts. A hired social media assistant could cover the task, but at the risk of propagating an inauthentic voice. Supervising this activity can become a distraction, and errors of fact or policy can escalate into PR headaches. On the positive side of the equation, social media offer an immediate and direct "megaphone" for the brand voice. A highly-talented business leader may build trust by sharing their personal perspectives and taking responsibility for the company's actions. That's tricky territory, however. I'd advise most CEOs to step back and let their PR pros handle the social channels. You wouldn't handle your ad creative either.
  • Posted on: 12/24/2020

    Was Walmart responsible for vetting opioid prescriptions?

    The suit against Walmart felt a little like scapegoating to me at first, but on reflection they truly should have known better. In fact, we could argue that large pharmacy chains have a whistleblowing responsibility. As others here remind us, the sheer quantity of opioid scrips should have sent up red flags. A corollary of retail's Paradox of Scale tells us that many small local mistakes can add up to a very large consequence that may be hard to perceive at first. Walmart pharmacists may well have questioned tens of thousands of prescriptions, as the company states, but that represents a fraction of the excess. The question I would ask is, "Who was responsible for looking at the aggregate data?" Walmart (along with the other large pharmacy chains) is not wrong to defend its people on the front lines, but it must also shoulder its share of the responsibility for the opioid crisis.
  • Posted on: 12/24/2020

    And the winner of the 2020 RetailWire Christmas Commercial Challenge is …

    Well this has certainly been a year of sentimentality in the RW Christmas Commercial Challenge. The DocMorris mini-movie still tops my list, but there are a batch of close contenders here. I like the Woodies story too, for its message of generosity to strangers. Appropriately absent from this year's top list are the portrayals of giddy consumption and partying crowds, that we have enjoyed without guilt in past seasons. I must say, re-watching this sequence today brought up a bit of melancholy. That's appropriate, I suppose, as it has been a hard year for so many. There will be time later to consider whether commercial messages like these make a genuine contribution to the healing process, but it seems possible this is the hope of many of the creators represented.
  • Posted on: 12/22/2020

    Is free at-home pick-up of online returns practicable?

    Free returns pickups might just work, but there are a few tricky spots. Return packages left outside front doors for later pickup are like shining beacons for porch pirates, so unattended pickups may not be such a good idea. During periods when delivery frequency is high, the FedEx vans will already be in most neighborhoods, so a few returns pickups should be practical. However it requires a re-thinking of the space inside the vans, the expected time per stop, and measures of driver productivity. Reverse logistics will become more challenging, no doubt. Many items will be hard (if not impossible) to re-flow into the supply chain. Assuming the folks at Walmart and FedEx have run the returns numbers with rigor, they may calculate that the enhanced customer experience will create a competitive advantage. I'll wait for proof. There could be a downside to making returns TOO easy, if it encourages many orders that are ultimately non-productive.
  • Posted on: 12/17/2020

    Commercials show the magic behind good deeds and Christmas surprises

    A strong pair of holiday ads. The Doc Morris spot evoked more emotion, so it wins overall. But the message of selflessness in the Co-op ad is truly admirable. Here again two European retailers present the gift of "mini-movies" which emphasize a caring message over a commercial call to action. American retailers should take note.

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