BrainTrust Query: Does Big Data Help Retailers Really Know Their Customers?

Discussion
Mar 29, 2012

For years, retailers have worked to collect “Big Data” about their customers. From transaction history, purchase frequency, click-throughs and annual spend to demographic, geographic, and weather related appends, retailers have spent millions trying to create a more complete picture of what drives their best customers to shop. This data is harnessed in multiple ways — from complicated predictive analytic modeling to display retargeting — all applied to a frenzy of marketing activity designed to drive incremental sales.

But does all this data really help retailers know their customers in a meaningful way?

In a recent (private) RetailWire BrainTrust discussion, I asked my fellow panelists to come up with what they considered to be the biggest retail myths being propagated today. Several members replied that the idea that retailers know their customers is a big myth. To quote Roger Saunders, “Retailers know the how, who, what, where, why, and when of their customers’ behavior in their store, but they do not know the complete customer.” Ryan Matthews concurred that knowing purchase patterns and behaviors is “not the same as knowing people.”

It appears that several prominent and successful retailers agree. According to last week’s Wall Street Journal, Lululemon, the hugely profitable and wildly successful purveyor of yoga wear, eschews “Big Data” in favor of old fashioned techniques such as walking the store, talking to customers and eavesdropping on dressing room conversations to figure out what customers want. Lululemon has built a billion dollar plus retail brand where inventory is scarce, discounting is rare and 95 percent of its stock is sold at full price.

Costco could use its membership card to track customer purchases and distinguish between loyal and occasional shoppers. Instead Costco makes its membership card a profit center, ignores complex customer data analytics and focuses instead on having a unique customer experience built on great brands at great prices, clean wide aisles, well trained store associates, a cheap cafeteria and treasures buried in different aisles.

Discussion Questions: When it comes to Big Data, are retailers fooling themselves into thinking they know their customers? What is the right mix of quantitative data, qualitative feel (through social media, in store visits, observation) and simple gut retail instinct for running a retailer today? Is there such a thing as “too much data” or is all data good data?

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38 Comments on "BrainTrust Query: Does Big Data Help Retailers Really Know Their Customers?"

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Bob Phibbs
BrainTrust

The best retailers still know it is about you first; technology second. While an algorithm can show that the person who purchases canned tuna fish is likely to buy a toothbrush and tends to buy bananas, how much of that is truly useful to moving the needle? I would offer much less than BIG DATA would have you believe, becoming more of an anecdote for those who wade through it all than “knowing their customers.”

Paula Rosenblum
BrainTrust

Oh, I think retailers know they don’t know their customers. And they’ve had “big data” forever. Retailers have always been data junkies.

What they haven’t been able to do is put the data together in a meaningful way to draw reasonable conclusions about the customer, rather than the product. Or as my partner Brian puts it, they’ve used product movement data as a proxy for information about the customer.

So with multichannel retailing, customer patterns have become better exposed, and thanks to Moore’s Law, we now have the capacity to actually aggregate it up into something meaningful.

It’s very early. I would say our ability as retailers to absorb the rate of technological change is far slower than its actual advances. Hence, probably in about 5 years, more retailers will be actually using big data.

Nikki Baird
BrainTrust

I think it’s possible to spend a whole discussion on what “know” really means. I do think that retailers in some ways fall into the economic trap of sunk costs — they’ve been collecting customer data for years and they have a ton of it. It’s got to be worth something right? Or even worse, there’s that corporate myth that the secret to purchase behavior could be unlocked by plumbing the depths of that data — that the bytes and bytes of disc space that customer data occupies actually hides treasures of untold value.

I’m not convinced. What does a retailer really need to “know” in order to “know” customers? Behavior, definitely. Intention would be great. But why do they have to be so sneaky about divining customer intention? Why not just ask them what they want? That’s one data trade for value that I suspect most consumers will be happy to make: If I tell you what I’m trying to accomplish, will you actually make it easier for me?

Dr. Stephen Needel
BrainTrust

All data is good and more data is better, until you reach the point where you don’t know what to do with it or how to leverage it. Modeling Big Data only takes you so far — the next step is to test the ideas it should generate. That’s what you don’t see much of — testing new ideas generated by the data/models.

David Dorf
BrainTrust

With scale, retailers have lost intimacy. Expecting store staff to know their shoppers is tough, so retailers have tried segmentation, loyalty programs, focus groups, etc., all of which help but aren’t quite as good as truly knowing customers.

I believe so-called Big Data can help paint a better picture when both demographics and psychographics are combined, but accessing the necessary data can be tricky. Retailers need their customers to volunteer the information so there are no privacy issues.

Personal recommendations, offers, and pricing are already in the marketplace being powered by Big Data.

John Boccuzzi, Jr.
Guest
John Boccuzzi, Jr.
5 years 6 months ago

If you don’t know the questions you want to ask, neither “Big Data” nor any data is very useful. You may accidentally come across an insight by accident, but that is 1) rare and 2) when you find the insight how do you react to it? If you don’t plan on reacting to what you learned from data, stop spending time collecting and analyzing data.

I like the Lululemon approach to collecting insights and it sounds like they take action from what they learn. Tough to beat old fashioned, in-person conversations to learn more about your company, brand and service.

101 on how to use Big Data (defined by me):
1) Know the questions you are looking to answer before you hit the request key;
2) Have a commitment from the organization that they will take action when that answer is discovered;
3) Don’t count on just 1 data source;
4) Verify your answers with customer interviews;
5) Test your answer;
6) If the test proves to work deploy before others in the market mimic your work (and they will).

David Biernbaum
BrainTrust

In too many instances, the data is used to look through the rear view mirror. In other words, the process they use lacks vision.

Ryan Mathews
BrainTrust

The value of a tool depends on three variables: the inherent quality and characteristics of the tool itself; the skill of the tool user; and, finally, the task for which the tool is being used. One could have the world’s finest screwdriver and place it in the hand of the world’s finest mechanic but it wouldn’t do them much good if you were asking him/her to use it to pound steel into shape.

The same is true with data. I suspect the food industry isn’t using the “best tool” — a balanced constantly evolving blend of POS data, social media feedback, EFFECTIVE customer communication and a half dozen other variables. I further suspect that most people in the industry are skilled enough at the kind of robust, deep analytics needed to put an effective human face on the data. And, finally, I think retailers persist in misdefining their mission — defining it as the movement of inventory rather than the satisfaction of customer needs, both simple and complex.

Just accruing more numbers in and of itself doesn’t get you closer to an understanding of real customers and relying solely on numbers actually can hurt a retailer’s market position.

Liz Crawford
BrainTrust

Analyzing big data is no substitute for customer intimacy. But I don’t think it is intended for that.

Instead, I think Big Data will help retailers more effectively offer personalized products and deals to shoppers online. The integration of this data to in-store shopping is still far off.

Ted Hurlbut
Guest
Ted Hurlbut
5 years 6 months ago

Successful retailing requires a skillful blending of art, craft and science. All the data in the world is just numbers if there’s no context. The challenge for Big Retail has always been converting Big Data into concise, meaningful and actionable Big Knowledge.

Distinguishing between what’s important and what’s not has always been a challenge. All too often, less is more. All that data can ever tell you is what customers have DONE. It can’t tell you what customers are likely to DO. Past performance is not necessarily an indicator of future results.

Which is where the art and craft of retailing comes into play. There’s no substitute for a merchant’s accumulated, applied wisdom and experience. There’s a lot to be said for Lululemon’s and Costco’s approach.

Ed Dunn
Guest
5 years 6 months ago

For retailers, the best use of big data is transaction centric, not customer centric. I think it is a misconception in the industry to focus on profiling customers and collecting data on customers.

Walmart does not use big data for customers and does not have a “loyalty card.” Instead, Walmart appears to focus more on using big data to move inventory to its stores, transition seasonal products to the highest visibility traffic areas, and create loss-lead scenarios such as selling soda below cost during the summer months.

Creating the right environment to maximize transactions should be the focus of big data, not profiling 20% of customers.

Ian Percy
BrainTrust
There is math and there is mystery. In the 17th century, Newton convinced everyone the world and everything in it is all mechanistic, all controlled by mathematical formulae. No doubt about it, math explains lots of things. But we have to recognize the mystery too. There is another dimension where the highest possibilities live that is accessed a different way. Its secrets are given to us in dreams, intuitions, imagination, serendipities, feelings and so on. Look no farther than the stock market. Do you think its ups and downs are driven by the math or by mystery? Most of us know that a single word by someone in authority, or even their mood on a given day, can send the market wild, never mind what the facts are. Even MIT admits that well over 80% of all discoveries and innovations happen OUTSIDE of formal structures, academic analysis and so on. The big breakthrough insights — even those applied to customer service — come from the mystery, from another dimension. If it was ALL about the math and analysis, wouldn’t we have solved most of our universal problems by now? Ryan Mathews was right — all the analysis in the world… Read more »
Cathy Hotka
BrainTrust

I was once on stage and asked a large retail audience if they shopped in their own stores. Many hands went up. I then asked them to lower their hands if it was their spouse who did the actual shopping…and many hands came down.

Data is no substitute for hands-on observation, and not just during the holiday season. That said, as the technology improves and new practices are put in motion, retailers will get better at leveraging the data they already have.

Bill Bittner
Guest
Bill Bittner
5 years 6 months ago
There are a million quotations that buttress the tenor of this question. One of my favorites is that “Big Data provides us a plethora of transactions and a dearth of wisdom.” The challenge is that like most generalizations (including this one), Big Data is not always useless. Like any other tool, big data can be useful when it is put into the hands of a skilled practitioner who knows how to use it and has the additional tools necessary to be effective. For years I had a frequent shopper card whose registration was an old street address and did not include an email address. The advantage for me was that I never had to put up with mailings that meant nothing to me. The disadvantage to the retailer was that they had no way to reach me. Information about the buyers is one thing retailers can still monopolize. The foolish thing is to give this information away to manufacturers or market analysts. Even if there is a smaller payment, I would only provide third parties non specific customer data. Not only do you avoid customer complaints, you keep yourself in the loop for any personal contacts. Using the big data… Read more »
Frank Wagman
Guest
Frank Wagman
5 years 6 months ago

There is a saying in the computer world — “garbage in, garbage out.” Whether it is big data or little data, if the process of collecting it has no integrity, then it won’t do you any good. However, that shouldn’t dissuade companies from investing in the technology that captures and collects the data, because you can’t improve anything unless you can measure it.

Tony Orlando
BrainTrust

I don’t need a 50 page report to know who my core customers are. Shopping habits have changed so much in the last 5 years, and it is no secret that consumers shop anywhere and everywhere. Online sales have also taken away from brick and mortar stores which skews the data as well. Tracking someone’s personal shopping habits in your store can be done, but what’s done with it is up to each retailer. I do know that true hardcore customers are less than 20% of my base, and we do take care of their needs quite well. Building loyalty with the remaining 80% requires the same amount of great service, but most of them will support your store if the deals you have drive the sales at the front end.

Adrian Weidmann
BrainTrust

There is only too much data if you don’t take the time to understand what it is telling you. It is also true that that you have too much data (and wasted expense) unless you act on what the data is telling you!

We designed, measured and analyzed a comprehensive in-store digital media initiative for a Fortune 50 retailer. We had extensive quantitative and qualitative data which clearly showed trends and provided guidance for what worked and what didn’t. The data strongly suggested that existing processes and methods were simply not working and changes had to be made. The data, when translated into actions, clearly showed that the familiar and culturally accepted workflows and retail-centric ‘best-practices’ were simply not resonating nor engaging the shoppers in a meaningful way. The suggested changes dictated by quantitative data based on shopper behavior were deemed to be too disruptive to the ‘status quo’. Was it a matter of too much data or too much bureaucracy and ‘not enough pain’ to facilitate a change?

David Zahn
Guest

My thoughts are similar to John Boccuzzi’s on this one. Ask questions that matter or the dominos will fall in unanticipated directions. The efforts that support the “actions” of a poorly implemented initiative will amount to being “the emperor’s new clothes” at best.

The reliance on data, analysis, number crunching, etc., has a place in retail — but NOT at the expense of the following:

1) Standing for something or differentiating yourself from others (how few retailers or manufacturers for that matter are TRULY distinctive from competition?)
2) Being able to communicate it and demonstrate it in meaningful ways
3) Reacting to pressures, competition, changing customer dynamics, etc. in a way that is consistent with the company’s mission, strategy, and identity (versus a “whoops, market share is down, let’s lower prices!”)
4) Enabling staff to execute against the strategy(ies) of the company in a consistent with the corporate strategy, but autonomous way.

The problem is not big data — it is a tool (as Ryan Mathews correctly points out). It is in the environment and culture it is placed and the expectations one puts on the user.

Dan Frechtling
BrainTrust

I agree with the consensus that divining patterns through big data isn’t a substitute for simply asking customers what they want. Bob, Paula, Nikki, Ryan, Cathy, Bill and others have made a good case here.

“Data mining” succeeds in huge batches and works best through digital interfaces. “Asking customers” succeeds at the individual level and works best through associates in-store, as Liz suggests. It also provides good service.

Analytics has the power to centralize things that were decentralized. It gives the capacity and sometimes the illusion of control. The Achilles’ Heel is that each retailer only has a sliver of information about a customer’s purchase history — those purchases made in its own stores. That does not provide a complete picture for analytics, and is another reason analytics can’t replace asking.

Doug Garnett
BrainTrust

A set of observational facts always appears important, but reveals little about people. Mobile data promises to make this problem even worse.

So in reality, it’s a myth driven by the most common research error — let’s call it the Einstein for his articulation: Much that can be measured does not matter and much that matters cannot be measured.

Anne Howe
BrainTrust
I’m not certain there is one right answer here or one ideal mix of data. But knowing what you want/need to know by having a knowledge map and a clear sense of where your insight gaps are certainly goes a long way to help use data efficiently. I’ve also had a very long-held rule that looking for the SoWhat? is only a good thing if you’re prepared to follow it up with the DoWhat. That’s called Insight into Action! For a long while, retailers really haven’t wanted to change their long-term ways of doing business with shoppers. But, through data, a deep understanding of what shoppers are really doing, especially with technology enabling the mirroring of offline behavior to online, has caused retailers to take notice. Data has helped them face the future reality, and many are now using data in very smart and productive ways. Suppliers and partners who are willing to help them ask the right questions and use data to fill insight gaps will be better off going forward than not. Guts are good, knowledge and insights are essential, but the strategic ability to apply it all to an actionable plan that can be put in place… Read more »
Robert DiPietro
BrainTrust

Too much data — absolutely NOT! When retailers are serving millions of customers, big data allows them to customize offers and see trends that they wouldn’t otherwise. It’s not the fact that there is too much data, but what you do with it to make the customer experience better. How you serve up relevant information that enhances the customer experience vs detracts from it. It is all about mass customization!

Old school techniques such as walking the store are important for getting to know that specific stores’ customers and nuances, but is that sample size be large enough to justify chain-wide changes?

Herb Sorensen
BrainTrust

Big data, little data, no data. It makes no difference if the data does not support the retailer’s underlying business model — and it doesn’t. Retailers are highly rational in their practices, they are simply not aligned with the “reasoning” of their observers — including, but not limited to, data gurus.

Roger Saunders
BrainTrust

Data is only useful if retailers (and other marketers) can develop and understand the insights that guide them to support their customers’ needs, wants, and expectations. Ryan Mathews comments are spot on — retailers need to know the complete consumer. That entails insights beyond behavior. They need to understand and appreciate consumer attitudes and sentiments, what their future plans our, how they gather information about stores they shop, and how they are influenced by media in making their purchase decisions.

This all takes listening — both in a qualitative and a quantitative manner. A retailer can not come up with their share of wallet, stomach, or time by merely knowing what their customer is doing within their own store(s). They have to work with the insights that guide them to what the customer is doing when not in their store(s).

It is inevitable that MORE data will be capture in the digital information age. Retailers who effectively integrate that data, and then build insights, will be the winners.

Roberto Orci
Guest
Roberto Orci
5 years 6 months ago

Our experience says that current customer data is not the best indicator of customer potential. In Los Angeles, for example, a traditional chain store in a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood may show a customer mix that is NOT predominantly Hispanic. Do you then continue with programs that appeal to your existing base?

Only a physical check of that store and nearby Independent Chains would open your eyes to the fact that this traditional retailer is missing out on a huge opportunity because their store format is not relevant to the trade area. If in doubt do a comparison of sales per square foot of your store and competitors’ stores. Eye opening, indeed.

Lee Kent
BrainTrust

Big data is no substitute to personally knowing your customer, but it certainly adds value to how, where, and when you interact with them. And they are demanding that!

Ralph Jacobson
BrainTrust

“Is there such a thing as ‘too much data’ or is all data good data?”… Well, there IS a flood of data in our business. We can’t stop it. We should try to capture and analyze as much of it as we can. The challenge comes when we try to look at it. Literally 80% of all data is unstructured. That is, it cannot be effectively managed without some sort of deep analytics manipulation. Another piece is that some of the data may not be “good,” or more accurately it may not be trusted. Data feeds must be reviewed for their integrity and then efficient analysis, modeling, etc., need to be performed prior to any decision making.

Sure, there may always be some level of “gut” decision making in our business, however, companies have some great capabilities in the marketplace to take so much more of the “gut” feel out of their lives and begin to manage Big Data like never before. The whole ecosystem of retailers, CPGers, wholesaler distributors, etc., can collaborate to each others’ benefits. Time for some of us to wake up to the new century!

Ben Sprecher
Guest
Ben Sprecher
5 years 6 months ago

Retail *is* Big Data. The organic pulse and flow of so many different people acting both in concert (employees) and independently (shoppers) eventually ends up as 1s and 0s at the POS.

And I always marvel at how clearly the data tells the “story” of retail: the regular weekly heartbeat of sales, the seasonal cycles in tastes, the frenetic spurts and stutters around holidays and hurricanes and snowstorms. Is analyzing that data the only way to know your customers? Of course not. But it can be an incredibly powerful way.

Retailers need to break down the internal silos that divide the “data” world from the real world, and they need to live in both. Take what you learn from store visits and customer feedback and validate and measure it with the data. Take insights from your data analysis and immediately begin a test and learn cycle to see if you can use them to influence shopper behavior.

Data alone does not equal insight. And analytics without actionability is academic.

Dennis Serbu
Guest
Dennis Serbu
5 years 6 months ago

Ted Hurlbut nailed it. The data is the science, knowing what to do with it is the art. That said, you are looking at historical information. That which was … is not necessarily what will be. Shoppers are fad prone and certainly susceptible to economic factors which influence their shopping behavior. We all need to get out into the market, not just our own stores, but competitors too, and across channels. As the wise Yogi Berra once remarked, “sometimes you can observe things just by watching.” See how the customer is shopping, what are they putting in their baskets? What day is it of the payroll cycle? How are the upscale shoppers shopping? Are they looking at prices or just grabbing and moving on?

Data is good. It is better with the study of the shopper in their environment.

robert donovan
Guest
robert donovan
5 years 6 months ago

Amassing data is one skill. Interpreting it and applying the findings is something else again.

Ronnie Perchik
Guest
Ronnie Perchik
5 years 6 months ago

All data is good data, as long as it’s targeted and spliced up in such a way that you utilize it all to yield a bottom line.

With the advent of emerging digital technologies, like social media and mobile, retailers and brands now have the opportunity to truly “get to know” their customers. No eavesdropping necessary: blast the right message via Facebook, and consumers will tell you pretty directly how they feel, what they expect, and how to go about it. You just have to be there to listen.

Mobile allows for localization and tracking to understand how customers in different geographical locations, down to the zip code, shop and what they want to see in their stores.

Retailers can take the traditional approach to collecting analytics — but they should couple it with digital technology to paint a more vivid picture.

John Lingnofski
Guest
John Lingnofski
5 years 6 months ago

It seems to me that the more removed you are from the day-to-day front lines the more enamored with big data. My experience (after having to create the reports) is that senior leadership tends to use the big data to give them some sense of control over their business when, in fact, they should just apply the 10-foot rule: If you want to know what’s going on and get some idea of what to do about it, ask the person within 10 feet of that job; in retail, talk to the customer. Pretty low tech, but pretty effective.

Mark Heckman
BrainTrust
Over the years of working with customer data, I have learned (often very painfully) that neither quantitative shopping behavior nor more qualitative customer feedback in and of themselves are sufficient to operate in a truly customer-centric fashion. Even before huge repositories of customer data existed, savvy retailers would ask their shoppers through focus groups and surveys as to what they like and what they would like. While much of this information helped craft customer driven improvements, it also became evident that shoppers are often times very poor predictors of their own behavior. While certain attributes such as health, nutrition, and certain product offerings were often ranked high in surveys, many of these priorities failed to emerge as critical issues in reality. Conversely, transactional shopper data can tell you much about what shoppers buy, how much and how often consumers shop, as well as when and where they shopped, but often do not reveal attitudinal motivations for doing so. Finally, there will never be a substitute for good old face-to-face customer service. Good store directors and personnel know well what makes many of their best shoppers tick, where as all the data and all the surveys would not. It is when… Read more »
Phil Rubin
BrainTrust
5 years 6 months ago

There is no question that the majority of retailers do not know their customers and as such have, at best, transactional relationships with them.

While there are exceptions (Lululemon though their CEO collects data every day she’s in a store; and of course, Amazon) the data isn’t the challenge, it’s the strategic and tactical use of the data. Merchants use the data and the information gleaned, on a daily basis. Those insights, however, are product more than customer focused. Retailers, despite all their data assets, are still too often merchant-driven rather than customer centric.

The opportunity with data is still exponential, especially in terms of deriving proprietary insights about customers and leveraging those insights across the entire customer experience. For example, a great store experience is devalued when away-from-the-store touch points are littered with irrelevancy. This is what makes Amazon great and as well creates upside even for great brands like Nordstrom.

At some point, even a super-merchant like Lululemon will struggle with organic growth and be pressed into better using customer data.

Kathy Ofsthun
Guest
Kathy Ofsthun
5 years 6 months ago

Never underestimate the power of n = 1. Understanding even one customer at a deep level can trump a fire hose spewing data. Retailers need to talk with their customers, in-depth, to uncover their motivations and frustrations. Moreover, they should shop their own stores, work as a bagger, return a piece of merchandise, perform an online search and call their hotline to understand more fully the customer experience.

Qualitative is at least as important as quantitative. Big Data is fine for measuring foot traffic by weather patterns and time of day, determining adjacencies and cross-promotion opportunities, etc., but to increase traffic and margins, one must also have deep consumer knowledge.

Tim Callan
Guest
Tim Callan
5 years 6 months ago

The best strategy is both. For many decades, as product management professionals have attempted to “grok” their customers, the best practice has been to collect both the hard facts and the softer impressions that come with direct involvement. Both are indispensable. It’s great that Lululemon seeks to listen to customers and get to know them. Everyone should do that. At the same time, if 70% of your customers have a certain interest or engage in a certain behavior in your stores and you don’t know that, then there’s no way you’re optimized.

Big Data is an irreplaceable part of store optimization because it gives you access to actionable, fact-based information that you wouldn’t have had otherwise. If a retail executive responsible for store performance says, “I don’t need to gather data on my customers because I understand them well enough already,” that strikes me as a fundamentally lazy attitude. My approach has always been that you can’t conceivably understand your customer too thoroughly, and to eschew any source of deeper understanding is fraught with danger.

Kai Clarke
BrainTrust

Yes, yes and yes. The ability to data mine,as well as manage this information in the retail environment is difficult for anyone to do. Most retailers don’t use their information well, let alone manage their business with this knowledge. The sheer number of OOS at retail, as well as product shrink, two of the largest issues at retail, are clear predictors of this. Retailers need to know their business better, know their logistics better, and manage their customer’s expectations (after they know them), in order to become successful.

Jeff Elderton
Guest
Jeff Elderton
5 years 6 months ago

In our Business Intelligence work, we draw a clear distinction between “More Data” and “Big Data,” with the former being simply big transactional data volumes and the latter having a “unstructured” characteristic.

The most common production instances of Big Data surround web logs and healthcare informatics, where both datasets hide their real nuggets in the sequence of events, more so than the sum of events. For us on the retail side, there are significant insights to be gained by empirically capturing the sequence of shopper behavior in a true multi-channel sense, and informed by social media analytics.

If retailing is presenting a story to the consumer of aspiration, product, environment, and value, the basics of reporting get you much of the way home, but the plot of the story can absolutely be informed by Big Data.

As for having your ear to the consumer? I have witnessed exceptional awareness to consumer needs with Joe Magnacca and Paul Tiberio’s work at the Duane Reade division of Walgreens. Not informed by Big Data, just actively engaged with their market.

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