Supply chain delays and buy now, pay later: hidden costs of holiday shopping : It's Been a Minute with Sam Sanders A lot of consumers are worried about supply chain delays this holiday season — but there are also other issues to watch out for when shopping. Guest host Ayesha Rascoe talks about the hidden costs of holiday consumption with The Atlantic staff writer Amanda Mull and The Washington Post retail reporter Abha Bhattarai. They discuss the potential downfalls of buy now, pay later services and where online shopping returns really go. Then, they play a game of Who Said That?

The hidden costs of holiday consumerism

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So, kids, what are some things you might want for Christmas? Annalise, what do you want for Christmas?

ANNALISE: A doctor set.

RASCOE: A doctor set.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: I want a dollhouse that I can live in with dolls.

RASCOE: A dollhouse you...

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Are we actually starting this?

RASCOE: Yes. And, Reggie, you go next.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: It's a toy house.

REGGIE: I want Elsa's autograph.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: An autograph (screaming).

RASCOE: You want Elsa's autograph.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: I want a diamond necklace.

RASCOE: (Laughter) OK. Thank you.


RASCOE: Hey, everybody. You're listening to IT'S BEEN A MINUTE from NPR. I'm Ayesha Rascoe, in for Sam Sanders. Thank God for the weekend. So my kids clearly want a ton of presents this year, and they're not shy about asking. They really dream big (laughter). Now, I probably won't be able to find that live-in dollhouse or Elsa from the "Frozen" movies autograph at the store. But I'm kind of concerned about finding anything I want this year, and that's because of this one thing that I keep hearing about - the global supply chain.


DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: The supply chain is a mess.

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: With the holidays coming up, you might be wondering if gifts you plan to buy will arrive on time.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: So they have no place for these goods to go after they get off the ship at 3 o'clock in the morning.

ABHA BHATTARAI: So the supply chain is essentially all of the steps that it takes to make a product and get it to your door.

RASCOE: That's Abha Bhattarai. She's a national retail reporter at The Washington Post.

BHATTARAI: Shoppers are buying about 20% more items than they did before the pandemic, so there's just a lot more need for imports. And at the same time, everyone is sort of rushing to catch up. So factories are super backlogged. Ships are running behind. There aren't enough containers to actually load onto the ships. And then there weren't enough workers at the ports and to drive trucks to actually transport the items to your house.

RASCOE: These supply chain issues are expected to last well into next year. Both Abha and Amanda Mull, a staff writer at The Atlantic, join me to talk about all of this and about how we shop. Using things like buy now, pay later services or even making online returns makes all of these supply chain problems worse.

Amanda, it's my understanding that possibly - and it's hard for me to believe this - American consumers maybe actually have some hand in breaking the supply chain by being unreasonable or having unreasonable expectations and being a little bit greedy. Say it ain't so about the American consumer.

AMANDA MULL: I would say the answer to that is yes and no.

RASCOE: (Laughter).

MULL: When you break down spending trends over the past few months as the world has, like, sort of kind of gotten a little bit more back to normal, what we see is that overall spending increases that happened when there was more governmental support for people who are out of work or people who are low-wage workers, as that has ended, what we've seen is that among the sort of working and lower middle class in the United States, spending has gone down. But among affluent people, and especially the most affluent 20% of American households, spending has gone up. To a certain extent, a lot of them shop as entertainment, shop to, you know, to relieve boredom, shop because they've been in their houses a lot. They're very likely to be people who are working from home.

You know, the overall consumer trend is that people are buying more stuff, but when you break it down, it's affluent Americans who are putting an enormous strain on the consumer system. Because when you look at what's coming into ports, yes, there is a huge backlog. There is a huge bottleneck with getting stuff into the country, but we're still importing more things than we were in 2019 at the same time. So you've got a real problem with demand at this very affluent tier of people.

RASCOE: So when you talk about that, that's a class issue. So that's people - this top 20% - who have a lot of money, but there's also this group of people who are spending - who are probably not people who have a lot of money. But there are these services that are known as buy now, pay later services. And I've kind of become obsessed with them because they seem very tempting where you go to order some, like, Fashion Nova jeans or something, and you see the option to pay for the item in small amounts over time. And people are using them for furniture, for Peloton and also for Fashion Nova jeans. So, you know, Abha, you've looked into this a bit. Like, what are these services, and how do they work?

BHATTARAI: These buy now, pay later services have exploded during the pandemic. I mean, if you think about it, we all sort of stayed home for months. Everybody was shopping online. And so the big sell of store credit cards that retailers really rely on just wasn't happening. You can't really - that doesn't translate online in the same way that it does in stores. So retailers really pivoted in a big way to these services, and it's essentially a different form of debt. You know, you sort of - instead of paying $20 for your Fashion Nova jeans, you pay four installments of $5 each. It sounds great, but like every other form of debt, it adds up. And there isn't interest per se. They have different late fees. They have different structures, but it is essentially the same as having a credit card and charging things onto that.

RASCOE: And, Amanda, I mean, what do you think of, like, who is necessarily, like, being targeted? Because this is not the top 20% who, I would imagine, who would actually be using these buy now, pay later services.

MULL: You're right. It's not - these are two distinct groups. They may have some overlap, but really who these services are targeted at is young people. People who have, you know, just reached 18 who are sort of credit eligible but who may not have credit cards, may not have a credit history in the traditional sense but who want to buy things online. Something interesting that sort of helped set this in motion happened when the regulatory restrictions around how you can market credit cards changed. And credit card issuers were removed from college campuses by and large. The federal government in 2008 decided they couldn't do that anymore, which means that, at this point, a lot fewer of those young, credit-ready people have credit cards. They tend to use debit cards, both because of those changes and because of just sort of general attitudes about credit cards. People have gotten a little bit more savvy about how they work and what to avoid. So these services sort of swoop into that void left by the removal of credit card pipeline. You have a real opportunity as a retailer if you can reach someone and gain their loyalty at a very, very young age because that means that you have a greater potential to extract more purchases from them over time than you would if you reached them later in life.

BHATTARAI: Yeah. So another thing that I found that was interesting was that many of the people I talked to who use these services, like, didn't set out to buy H&M T-shirts in installments. They usually started using the program when they bought something big-ticket. You know, maybe they needed a suit for an interview or they needed a refrigerator and this became an easy way to finance that. And then once they have it, it's kind of like, well, every time you see it as an option on the website, why not? You know, it's - I'm going to be paying in installments anyway, so let me just add a $6 H&M T-shirt to that. So it's interesting how it sort of evolved from being primarily used to finance larger big-ticket items to just everyday anything.

RASCOE: Is there a drawback to this? Because people will be listening and thinking - and I have thought, like, should I - should I do this? Is this - like, is there a drawback to doing this type of service?

MULL: I think that by and large, the drawbacks are similar to using other types of consumer credit, like credit cards. You know, there is the opportunity to buy more than you can really afford to pay for, to buy more than you really planned to. A big reason that a lot of retailers have adopted this is that if you're splitting things up into four payments, then, like, why not add another pair of jeans on top of that purchase? It only...

RASCOE: (Laughter) Yeah.

MULL: It only increases those four payments a few dollars each. So they create sort of this opportunity for people to incorrectly do the math on how much money they're actually spending and where that fits in their budget. But that's the case with credit cards, too.

RASCOE: You know, if you give me the chance to do something in installments versus one big lump sum, I'm going to always do the payment plan. So that's just me. So there's this other problem that I would also kind of put in the column of possible overconsumption. And I really didn't know anything about this until I read your column, Amanda, and now I'm kind of concerned about it. And this is about online returns. I guess it turns out that it is incredibly wasteful. I did not have any idea because I have these, you know, this Amazon thing where they send me clothes and I send them back - the ones I don't like. And I thought that was fine, and somebody else would get them. But, Amanda, can you walk me through the process of what actually might be happening with these online returns that I do?

MULL: Yes. Well, I should say upfront that programs that are meant to incorporate a large amount of returns, like the program that you're a part of, may deal with these types of things a little bit better because they're sort of built into the model. So they may be better at moving those returns to a new customer more efficiently. But in general, a sort of fascinating - and I think underinvestigated - thing about online shopping is that anywhere from 30% to 50% of online purchases are returned. And it varies a lot by product category. More clothes are returned than furniture, for example. But that is really, like, a lot more than you traditionally get when you buy stuff at brick-and-mortar stores. Most brick-and-mortar stores have, like, an 8% return rate. And when you return something, it's sort of out of sight, out of mind with online returns. You know, you drop it in the mail, you drop it at the UPS store, whatever. It's gone. You don't see it. The thing that is sort of natural for people to assume is that then, you know, your return will be received. It will be resorted back into inventory, and it will go back out to another shopper. And sometimes that happens, but about 25% of online returns period are trashed. They go into a landfill. They are not sold to anybody else. They are not sold to a middleman. They're done. They're gone. They're wasted.

There's a lot of stuff that happens in between stuff that is trashed and stuff that is sold full price to a new shopper. A lot of things get sort of sold in bulk, and that either happens to, like, an off-price retailer, like a TJ Maxx or a Marshalls. They can go to a retailer's own outlet store. And a lot of things are sold in bulk by the container and shipped overseas to then be sort of sorted through in a lower income country and can be sold as new merchandise in those countries and what isn't is then thrown away. So the real number of returns that end up being thrown away is probably larger than 25%, but it's just so difficult to tell because they change hands and change locations so often.

RASCOE: And I don't want to put you two on the spot, but are either of you big returners or had you been big returners? Like, Abha, were you the - are you the type to, like, return a lot of stuff if it don't, you know, fit or whatever?

BHATTARAI: Yeah, I am.

RASCOE: (Laughter).

BHATTARAI: Or I used to have a tendency. I've been trying - I'm a little more careful about it now. But yeah. I mean, I think it's really tempting when you're shopping for something, and you're not sure which color you like, you're, like, well, I'll just try out one of everything. And you're not quite sure what size you are, so let's, you know, pick out a few. But yes, I am trying to be more aware of that and cut back on it.

RASCOE: Amanda, I understand you worked at Best Buy, so you - did you have to deal with returns? Did that make you less or more willing to return?

MULL: Yes. In the in the mid- to late 2000s, I worked in a Best Buy store. And, you know, the returns process was interesting there because it was a brick-and-mortar, and it was in a situation where that was really before online retail became as robust as it is now and before people got used to ordering, like, pretty much everything online. But even then, returns were sort of a thorny issue. You know, people would bring stuff back that was, like, clearly broken, and, like, they had clearly broken it. And in some situations, they were clearly not telling the truth.


MULL: People are not, like, not the best liars. I don't think anybody should be afraid of trying to get every dollar that they can out of some giant corporation that they give money to. But, you know, you're in...


MULL: ...A weird situation when you're an employee there because you are under a lot of pressure not to give people money back in those situations in which they're, you know, lying to you.

RASCOE: Now, I personally - since I asked y'all, I will not return anything unless it's, like, I have - they done printed out the tag for me, they got the bag. Like, if I have to print anything out, it's never getting returned.

MULL: Yes.


RASCOE: So now, you know, bringing this all full circle, you got buy now, pay later, you got, you know, these returns and stuff. I would imagine that this is all messing with the supply chain as well. Because you're also trying to return stuff and then, you know, you've got people buying a little bit more who - you know, because they got a little more freedom, then you got the rich people buying stuff. I would imagine this all is probably messing with the supply chain as well, right?

BHATTARAI: Absolutely. It's all straining the supply chain. So another complication too, especially clothing returns, is that a lot of times by the time you send something back, it's out of season. And that's something that retailers are constantly dealing with. Even if the product is in good condition, and even if they had the bandwidth to, like, have somebody put it back on the store floor, it's now out of season. It's marked down. It's on clearance. And we're going to start seeing that become a much bigger challenge just because there are so many containers of clothing sort of stuck on the ocean that maybe won't make it in, you know, winter inventory that's going to show up in the spring. And so I think that's a big challenge that the industry is going to have to deal with in the coming months is exactly what happens to all of these extra items, whether they were returned or just, you know, part of last season's inventory? What do they do with it now?

RASCOE: And so now that we're armed with all of this knowledge, what different choices can I make this holiday season when I'm shopping? What tips do you have for shoppers? Abha, you go first.

BHATTARAI: I think just to be more careful about what you're buying. Be more intentional about what you need and, you know, don't buy too much right off the bat.

RASCOE: Amanda?

MULL: I think that if you want, like, a strategy that might help you with this, it's buy stuff in person. Go...

RASCOE: Oh, my goodness, what?


MULL: I know. What a suggestion, right? Very retro. But if you can go - especially clothing, if you can go and try stuff on, if the stuff that you're looking at is available physically anywhere in your, you know, vicinity - wherever you live - if you can go and do that, you are going to probably save yourself money because you won't end up buying and then forgetting you bought something that needs to be returned. The experience of picking something up and looking at it and thinking about it is like a level of friction to the buying process that I think is really useful for people. And that doesn't really exist in online shopping when everything is pre-loaded credit card information, pre-loaded shipping addresses and one click to buy.


RASCOE: Thanks so much to The Atlantic staff writer Amanda Mull. Amanda writes the column "Material World." Also, thanks to Washington Post national retail reporter Abha Bhattarai. Can you stick around for us to play a little game of Who Said That?


MULL: Absolutely.


RASCOE: We're going to play a game now. It's called Who Said That?


KANDI BURRUSS: Who had been saying that?

PORSHA WILLIAMS: Who said that?

KENYA MOORE: Who said that?

RASCOE: This is how it works. I'm going to give you a quote from the weekend news and culture, and y'all have to guess who said it or what it's about. Just yell out the answers. There are no buzzers. And there are no prizes, but there is bragging rights. So does that sound all right?


MULL: Perfect.

RASCOE: OK, so here's the first quote. "If that young man has Taylor's scarf, he should return it."

MULL: Dionne Warwick.


RASCOE: Yes. OK. OK. Amanda got it. Amanda got it. This is Dionne Warwick on Twitter, and of course, she lights Twitter up. And this is after the rerelease of Taylor Swift's album "Red" that included an extended, like, 10-minute version of "All Too Well," which is supposed to be about Jake Gyllenhaal and something about a scarf.


TAYLOR SWIFT: (Singing) Left my scarf there at your sister's house, and you've still got it in your drawer even now.

RASCOE: (Laughter) Are either of you Swifties (ph)?

MULL: I am not a Swifty (ph). I really like "1989." That's a no skips album, but otherwise, I am sort of not super familiar with her catalogue.

RASCOE: Abha, are you a Swifty?

BHATTARAI: You know, I have to admit I've become a Swifty during the pandemic.


BHATTARAI: I've been converted by the last few albums. So yes, I am.

RASCOE: OK. So you're a Swifty, and so I have to ask - well, I'm going to ask both of you. Have y'all left something at a significant other's house that you want to get back that you would be singing about on a hit song?

MULL: I am, I think, the opposite direction on this in that I still have a very, very soft, long sleeve, leafy camo T-shirt from college that a college boyfriend left at my apartment. We broke up on, like, fine terms, but he probably did want this back. And I never gave it back to him because it's a really...

RASCOE: (Laughter).

MULL: ...Comfortable shirt to wear around the house. And I still have it. Like, this was, like, seriously 2006. (Laughter) It's a good shirt.

RASCOE: So you're the one with the item.

MULL: Yes.

RASCOE: So you're the one...

MULL: I'm the bad guy.

RASCOE: ...Who didn't return it.


RASCOE: Abha, are there any things that you have not returned, or (laughter)...

BHATTARAI: I think I'm pretty good about getting my stuff back, so no.


RASCOE: So you showing up at the door like, give me my stuff.

BHATTARAI: That's right.

RASCOE: OK. OK. Well, you know, I hope Taylor got the scarf back. So, OK, so Amanda has one point. OK, so here's the second quote. "I would like to swiftly remove myself from any of the hostile behavior put on display moments ago. This here thing has gone far enough for shawty (ph) to crash out on her own. And it saddens me because I still got a queen to raise." Does anybody know anything of this?


RASCOE: OK, I will give hints. It is a rapper who was recently supposedly canceled for being homophobic, but he is still around.

MULL: Oh, is it DaBaby?


RASCOE: It is DaBaby. He was on IG live. This happened earlier this week. I was very obsessed with the - DaBaby got into a heated argument with the mother of one of his children, DaniLeigh, and he was supposedly telling her to get out. She just had the baby. The baby's only three months - and not DaBaby. I'm talking about a actual baby...

MULL: The infant.


RASCOE: The infant. So DaniLeigh - real name Danielle Curiel - she had an infant and was feeding the infant. And he's on live, saying she got to go. Then he claimed that she was a certified side chick, and she wasn't really his girlfriend. Have any of you been following this, or (laughter) am I the only one?

MULL: I have not seen the original video, but I have heard and seen, like, a lot of tweets about it and stuff like that. I just - I tried to not watch the original one because I figured it would just upset me. But it's wild behavior about somebody who's, you know, just a couple of months postpartum and with your child, like, right there.

RASCOE: Yes, and they were doing - like, they were doing lives in the same house, but like competing IG lives. So, like, she would do a live in the living room, crying and saying, this is a horrible guy. And he would do a IG live on the other part of the living room saying, like, oh, she a certified side chick. She's not my girl. And then she had to release everything to prove that they actually had been together and that he was - videos of him saying he loved her. Oh, my goodness, I mean, it was just a lot. Have you guys ever engaged in any public arguments or any arguments at the Applebee's or the TGI Fridays or someplace like that? Have you ever had any public falling out?

MULL: I mean, I'm from Georgia. Like...


RASCOE: What does that mean?

MULL: I'm just saying that, like, I have certain - you know, I have certainly had conflicts in, like - I mean, I've been in many a Waffle House in my life. And that's a...


MULL: ...Place where, like, you know - a lot of fights happen in Waffle Houses.

RASCOE: Where it goes down.

MULL: Yeah.

RASCOE: It goes down.

MULL: If you've ever been in one, you know, after dark, you probably have been adjacent to a fight in a Waffle House.

BHATTARAI: I mean, I have two young kids, so it's drama in public all the time.


RASCOE: So that wholesome some drama, like, just kid drama.

BHATTARAI: (Laughter) I mean, relatively, perhaps.

RASCOE: So, Amanda, you are up two. OK?


RASCOE: So you're up two.

BHATTARAI: I'm doing terribly here.

RASCOE: So last quote, last chance to score. Just guess who this is or what song this quote is about. "I think I'll have to open every show with that, you know. It would be weird to drop that in the middle of a set" - very well-known singer.

MULL: Is it Adele?


RASCOE: Adele (laughter).


RASCOE: Amanda...

MULL: I'm sorry.


RASCOE: Amanda got it. OK. But that's it. She swept it. She just swept it - hat trick.

BHATTARAI: She sure did.


MULL: I'm sorry.

RASCOE: No, but I'll be...


RASCOE: Great job. So the singer is Adele. She's discussing her one-night-only concert special with Oprah. And, you know, she noted that she has to start with her hit "Hello" because the song is named "Hello."


ADELE: (Singing) Hello. It's me.

RASCOE: But the thing about that - did anyone watch that interview? Abha, did you watch that interview?

BHATTARAI: I didn't. I am hopelessly out of the loop this week.

RASCOE: But have you watched any of the Oprah outside interviews?


RASCOE: You have not seen (laughter)...

BHATTARAI: Totally out of the loop (laughter).

MULL: You didn't see the Meghan Markle interview?


RASCOE: You didn't see the Meghan Markle?

BHATTARAI: I saw enough about it. I didn't actually watch it.


RASCOE: So Oprah does these interviews outside, and she has this lawn furniture. And apparently the lawn furniture - not the actual lawn furniture because it's probably, like, a million dollars. But knockoffs of the lawn furniture sell out immediately after the interviews. She does have beautiful lawn furniture, which you would expect because it's Oprah, right?

BHATTARAI: What does it look like?

RASCOE: It's, like, wooden...

MULL: (Laughter).

RASCOE: ...And it's pristine. And it's also white.

MULL: Any kind of white furniture is just, like, oh, what a flex. Like, you have to...

RASCOE: It is a flex.

MULL: You have to have so much confidence and so much money.

RASCOE: Abha, I would imagine since you have young children that you are like me, and you don't have white furniture.

BHATTARAI: Oh, no way. No, everything is dark blue.


RASCOE: It's dark blue or gray. And then when...


RASCOE: ...You're buying it, you're like, would this hide a stain?

BHATTARAI: (Laughter).

RASCOE: They don't let us have nice things.

BHATTARAI: That's exactly right. Even my walls aren't white anymore. I mean, they used to be white, but my kids have colored over them. So (laughter) there's nothing that's white here.

RASCOE: My kids, I discovered that - and it wasn't until I saw them that I realized what they were doing. My daughter would literally wash her hands and then take her hands and hit the wall with her hands...


RASCOE: ...To dry them. And we didn't have, like, expensive paint, so it left all these handprints...


RASCOE: ...Right on - and it wasn't, like, until I saw her that I noticed there was, like, this line of, like, just dark marks on this - on the wall, like, right at her height. And I realized what she would do. She would just wash your hands and then just slam her hands into the wall to dry them, even though we own paper towels.

MULL: (Laughter).

RASCOE: Amanda, you killed it. Abha, you did great. Everybody is a winner here, right?


BHATTARAI: Very generous of you.


RASCOE: But Amanda, how does it feel to be the winner, just to take all like that?

MULL: It feels great. I'm the oldest sibling, so I have, like, the unfortunate combination of personality traits that means that I just really love to win...


MULL: ...Which is not, like, necessarily a good thing about me, but it is a thing that I'm willing to admit to.

RASCOE: Thank you so much for playing with me. I did have a lot of fun.

MULL: Thank you so much for having us.

BHATTARAI: Thanks, Ayesha.

RASCOE: Thanks again to The Atlantic staff writer Amanda Mull and to Washington Post National retail reporter Abha Bhattarai.


RASCOE: Got to get closer to my mic. Speak big. Say, now it's time to end the show...

ANNALISE: Now it's time to end the show...

RASCOE: ...Like we always do.

ANNALISE: ...Like we always do.

RASCOE: Every week, listeners share the best thing...

ANNALISE: A best thing...

RASCOE: ...That happened to them.

ANNALISE: ...That happened to them.

RASCOE: Say, we encourage them to brag...

ANNALISE: We encourage them to brag...


RASCOE: (Laughter) Then you say, and they do.

ANNALISE: And they do (laughter).

RASCOE: Say, let's share a few of those things.

ANNALISE: Let's share a few of those things.


MELISSA: Hi, Sam, this is Melissa (ph) from New Jersey. This week, my boyfriend and I rescued and adopted a wonderful dog from Memphis, Tenn. Ace (ph) is the sweetest boy and a wonderful nonprofit transport group brought him all the way up for us. I feel blessed to have the newest member of our little family and to know that there are great people out there helping fur babies find their forever homes.

ROB: Hey, Sam, this is Rob calling from Tacoma, Wash. And the best part of my week was that my mom flew out from Kansas to come visit me for a long weekend. And I was able to introduce her to my new boyfriend, Luke (ph). It was a really great weekend, introducing them to each other and just seeing these two people that I love so much really get along.

EMILY ROSE: Hi, Sam, my name is Emily Rose (ph). And the best thing that happened to me this week is I got my vaginoplasty surgery in a step towards becoming the woman that I have always known I am. I'm a transgender woman, and I began transitioning a year and a half ago, and this is a massive milestone for me.

KATIE: Hey, Sam, I wanted to share the best thing that happened in my week. I went to, one, my first in-person party since COVID, and it was so wonderful to see so many friends, and, two, I came out as non-binary and kind of pansexual last year, and this was the first time that I was able to acknowledge my queer feelings in real time and not sort of as an after effect. I just was really proud of myself for seeing myself, and it just felt so good to be in that warm, safe space and to accept myself.

MELISSA: Thank you.

EMILY ROSE: Thanks for always being there every week.

ROB: I hope that you have a good rest your weekend - God - good rest of your year. 2022 is right around the corner.


RASCOE: Thanks again to those listeners you heard there - Melissa, Rob, Emily Rose and Katie. Listeners, you can send us your best thing at any time during the week. We always want to hear from you. Just record yourself and send a voice memo to That's

All right, this week's episode was produced by Jinae West and Anjuli Sastry-Kurbachek (ph), Liam McBain and Audrey Nguyen. Our intern is Nathan Pugh. Our fearless editor is Jordana Hochman. And our big boss is NPR's senior VP of programming, Anya Grundmann.

All right, until next time, I'm Ayesha Rascoe, filling in for Sam Sanders. We'll talk soon.

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