155: A Crash Course in Retail Financing with Wells Fargo

Written by Rob Stott

February 14, 2023

From inventory financing to consumer credit, the world of retail financing is vast. To help get a handle on it all, we tapped into our partners over at Wells Fargo Retail Services to dive into it. Steve Jermier, SVP of Relationship Management at Wells Fargo, sat down to talk about the work his team does behind the scenes to help independent retailers navigate the ins and outs of retail finance, the cause behind the recent rate changes and strategies to avoid letting it impact your business.


Rob Stott: We are back on the Independent Thinking podcast and excited to dive into the world of retail financing. And we get to do it today with Steve Jermier, the Senior VP of Relationship Management for Wells Fargo Retail Services. Steve, appreciate you calling in. You’re in Des Moines, is that right? What you said before we hopped on here. So you’re out there in middle America? In Hawkeye country?

Steve Jermier: I am. Yep. Hawkeye country unless you’re a Cyclone fan I guess. And if you are, I apologize, but I’m pretty sure most people know us as Hawkeye country. And believe it or not, it’s not awful here on this morning of February. February, what is it? February 8th?

Rob Stott: Yeah.

Steve Jermier: I think we’re scheduled to get up into the 40s today, which means people and I will put on shorts and hoodies and walk around in those types of temps.

Rob Stott: No, that’s awesome. Well, appreciate you taking the time and jumping into your first podcast with us. So I look forward to christening you, welcoming you to the world of recording audio and sharing insights with our members. This is sure to be a good time for sure. But we’ll start, how are things right now at Wells Fargo? What’s going on in your world and what’s the day-to-day like over there?

Steve Jermier: Yeah. Certainly after the pandemic and everything, we looked at 2022 and thought finally things are going to calm down and get normal, and we’re just going to have a year where we can get back to just running the business. But like everything else, the stuff changes. And so I know we’re going to talk a little bit about funding costs and what’s happened there, here in a little bit. But as that has happened, as those funding costs have skyrocketed, it’s been important for our team to remain focused on what we can control. I can’t control inflation. I can’t control the Fed. I can’t control this funding cost environment. What I can control is how we engage with your merchants, how our team pushes for digital innovation, how we work with the Nationwide group to find creative promotions and aggressive specials to keep our programs competitive for the members.

And the other thing, when we talk about what’s going on here internally, I try to get this fit in every time I have a chance to talk, whether it’s at primetime on center stage or any arena with Nationwide. Our team that supports this program, and I mean this, is as good as we’ve got in my entire organization but more importantly, I think in the entire private label industry. If you look at who supports your program, and I’m going to say names for the folks, for the members that are with us already and even frankly for the ones that aren’t, they’re going to know most of these names. Carrie Pachanga, it starts and probably stops to a certain degree with our support in Nationwide with Carrie. I refer to her as the prom queen of primetime. Every time I go there, I’m shocked at how many people she knows. Everybody’s coming over to say hi to her.

Scott Ikemyers been on this program for years. Alan Peters is a 30-year veteran of our company, and has been with the Nationwide group effectively since the beginning. And then we have Sarah Richmond who we added here a few years ago, and people don’t realize Sarah’s been with our organization for over eight years and does a great job supporting a lot of your members as well. That’s just the team that supports you from a relationship standpoint. Beyond that, we’ve got a couple of other people that you see consistently at primetime and through our digital channels as well.

Christie Aloise is a corporate trainer that… Look, I can tell you when we… I created the role, the corporate trainer role, and it was four years ago, four and a half years ago. And when my boss Dan Abbott said, “Well, who do you have in mind?” It was the easiest answer I’ve ever had to give to a question. I said it’s Christie Aloise, and it’s been that way since I started thinking about this shop. Christie is perfect for the role that she plays. She’s been with our company I think in aggregate for over 20 years and is as knowledgeable about every process that we have as anyone in the organization. And so if you know Christie, keep using her. If you don’t know Christie, get to know her because she will help you become more effective at offering financing.

And on the marketing side, we have Amy Blessington. And Amy’s been… Good grief. Again, 20 plus years. And really has supported this relationship since the beginning. So all of your marketing needs, all of your open-to-buy campaigns, what we do with custom cards and messaging, all the stuff that we do to make this program unique to your members, Amy’s behind the scenes doing that. And it’s a team that I think it says a lot about the quality of the relationship we have here, that this team has been around… I think the aggregate average is probably… It’s got to be over 20 years on average of folks that support this program, and we’re really proud of that, really proud of that.

Rob Stott: That’s awesome. You mentioned obviously a strong team always see you guys out at primetime doing work and connecting with the members and sharing what goes on. But for those that may not be familiar with what you’re doing behind the scenes to support the program, talk about that a little bit and whether it’s across the roles and just… Because I think when members think of consumer financing or inventory financing, their minds go to, “Well, they help bring the dollars that help me buy my product or help our customers be able to purchase products.” So beyond that, what are the other things that you guys are doing that they may not know about that goes on behind the scenes at Wells Fargo?

Steve Jermier: Yeah. So I’ll start with the relationship team specifically, so Carrie, Scott, Sarah and Allan. They are constantly pushing and working to find ways to make financing easier for your members. And I’ll give you a couple of good examples. We have scan-to-apply, which we’re going to talk about in a little bit as well. And we have a product called Proof where a customer literally only has to enter two pieces of information. And from that point forward, we do some work behind the scenes systemically to validate that they are who they say they are, and then we pre-fill the rest of the credit application. So that kind of stuff you go, “Okay. Well, scan-to-apply.” And, “Okay, I get it prove. And those are good experiences.” Here’s why we do those things. We do those things because we know if we make financing easier, your members are going to be more apt to use it. And we know that when they use it, they get a higher average ticket, right? So this is good for the goose, good for the gander. So the relationship team is doing all that behind the scenes.

I mentioned Christie. Christie from a training and support perspective is literally teaching your members. And it doesn’t matter if it’s your owners, your managers, or your frontline salespeople, that’s why she’s in the role she’s in. She is teaching them how to use these capabilities more effectively to get to that end. That’s exactly what she’s doing every day. And then Amy, again, on the marketing side behind the scenes, we’ve been with this relationship, this Nationwide relationship for years. We have lots of members that have been on the books with us for a number of years. And as time goes on, you develop a really large existing customer base that is an untapped resource. Amy Blessington is helping you go back to those customers, make special offers to them on what we call open-to-buy campaigns, to get them back into your store and make more purchases.

So when you wrap all that together, obviously we’re managing the program day-to-day and looking at the numbers and working with Chris and Jason Kirk and Don Henderson on the overall program overview, performance metrics, all of that. But the stuff that moves the dial for us is the stuff that happens behind the scenes.

Rob Stott: Oh, it’s awesome to hear. And I think from the member side to realize that there’s a lot more that goes… And I’m sure there are members that are fully in tune with what’s happening, but for those that… It’s a relationship that’s important, but maybe it’s second thought of what actually goes on. It’s cool to peel those layers back and see the work that you guys are doing to make this program it is what it is, and it’s awesome and has benefited members in many ways. So it’s cool to get that and we appreciate that. Well, we’re going to dive right in.

Steve Jermier: Rip the bandaid off?

Rob Stott: So I know we did the easy stuff. We’re just going to do it and then we’ll get through it and then talk about some of the other things that you guys have coming on. But I know our members, they got the rate increases that are going on. And obviously I think you look at the market conditions, they are what they are and headwinds are strong right now, so it’s understandable I think some of the news that came out about the increasing rates and things like that. But talk about that, what triggered that? What brought that to the table as an option and what it’s going to be like moving forward?

Steve Jermier: Yeah. So let me start by saying I hold this relationship that we have with the Nationwide marketing group effectively against almost every other relationship we have in the portfolio. I think the world of the team that we work with on a day-to-day basis. And because of that, we held off on this increase so long, it’s almost laughable. If you look at the increases that we instituted across the rest of the portfolio, Rob, they started in the first quarter of 2022. So we started making increases strategically back then. We held off and held off and held off as long as we could here. But I want to give everybody a little bit of perspective on the environment that we’re in right now. So if you go back in a hot tub time machine to January 1st of last year, January 1st 2022. At that time, our funding costs were less than half a percent.

So for us to go book a loan or book a line of credit in a purchase on one of your member’s customers, the amount of money that we had to outlay to subsidize that loan or that line of credit was less than half a percent. Today it’s just over 4.8%. So everybody knows about the Fed and that’s okay, and I’m not going to get into a Finance 101 class here, but I want to make sure everybody understands something. The Fed directionally ebbs and flows and yes, our funding costs to a certain degree can trend with that, but we’re not indexed against the Fed funds rate. We index against something called US Treasury Yield Curve rates. And anybody can Google these. You can go, the yield curve rates are out on treasury.gov. You can go out. Just go fact check me here. And I think as of yesterday, the 12-month yield curve rate was 4.89 and the six-month yield curve rate was 4.88. Just for perspective.

So what does a 12 and a six-month yield curve rate mean? Well, in layman’s terms, we try to match our funding costs to the types of promotions that we offer. So on a six or a 12-month deferred interest promotion, we’re probably looking closer at the six-month yield curve rate because our customers pay off those promotions somewhere between that six and 12 month timeframe. For the longer promotions that we offer, more predominant in furniture and bedding than they are in appliances, but if you look at 24 and 36 and 48 months, we index those against the 12-month yield curve rates. What I just told you is it really doesn’t matter which one you’re indexing against, they’re both really high right now. Like I said, 4.88 and 4.89 as of the other day. So at some point in time, we have to be able to pass that cost along.

I refer to it as sucking the poison. We can’t suck the poison forever. I wish we could. But just like everything else that your members are doing today, they’ve seen increases in all their goods since the pandemic started. What’s happened as a result of that? Our average ticket is up 15%. Our average ticket is up 15% because the stuff people are buying costs 15% more than it did a year or two ago, right?

Rob Stott: Yeah.

Steve Jermier: So that’s just purely from a funding cost standpoint. That’s your underlying rationale as to why this is happening. Now, the other piece that’s happening, and this is real, is we’re starting to see changes in consumer behavior across the marketplace. And I’m not just talking about Wells Fargo retail service, this is general credit card trends regardless. So one, payments are starting to slow down. The frequency and the amount with which customers pay their bills is starting to slow. That’s a bad sign from an economic standpoint. Delinquencies are rising across the card industry. That’s a bad sign from an economic standpoint.

So those two things combined, I would say at this point in time, we can see storm clouds on the horizon. I don’t think anybody’s getting struck by lightning yet. But look, if I’m the local weather man, I’m saying, “Hey, we’re going to watch the radar on an hourly basis…”

Rob Stott: So batten down the hatches, something’s coming.

Steve Jermier: You got it. You got it. So that’s another component, what we have to contemplate when we’re making decisions like this. But having said all of that, our program and frankly any financing program that you offer as a member today, it shouldn’t just be about price. It’s never been just about price. There’s other components to this that I think we forget. Price is the one that’s on a sheet that everyone can see, that tends to probably garner the most attention. But here’s a couple of other things I’d point out. Price doesn’t matter if I don’t approve anybody. And across the industry, and I would welcome direct calls or emails from any members if they disagree with this, we have the strongest approval rates in this industry and we have for years. And that’s something we take a lot of pride in. Our credit team is really good at identifying which customers we think we need to make an offer to. And because of that, we see that as a competitive advantage here at Wells.

Another area that frankly gets overlooked on a regular basis is the limits that we give your members when the customer applies for credit. And I’ll give you a perfect example of this and something that we really started instituting right at the end of this past year. So we know after having had multiple conversations with Nationwide, that there’s a… I would say there’s a hole, a gap in financing for… And I’m going to use this phrase, and I’m not in appliances so you can laugh at me if I say this wrong, I think it’s luxury appliance packages. I think I called them executive kitchens one time and somebody laughed at me and said, “No, Steve.”

So if we’re talking about an appliance package, it costs 30 or 40 or $50,000. It’s almost like there’s yellow caution tape around that section of the store that says, “Financing doesn’t apply.” Okay? Because boy, there’s no way Wells or any of these other creditors are going to come out and issue limits that can cover this. And by the way, those customers don’t need financing anyways. Well, let me dispel both of those myths right here and now. We have a separate limit matrix strategy, that’s tech talk internally for Wells finance nerds, but what it really means is I’ve got a separate approach I can give members if they have a need in their luxury appliance package section to get more aggressive limits. And we absolutely can cover those large purchases. That is not an issue. And number two, please don’t assume that those customers don’t need financing.

There’s really two sets of customers in our space. There’s the customers that absolutely need us to finalize the sale, they can’t pay cash, they don’t want to use their general purpose credit card to get this purchase done. And on the other end of the spectrum is a customer that we forget about all the time, that absolutely could pay for this right now, they just don’t want to. They want to use our money. They want to use free financing, and we have a way to help them there. So limits is a space that gets neglected a lot, but if you’re hearing this and it’s making your ear perk, call us. We’ve got a strategy for you and we can help.

Rob Stott: It’s the person at the end of dinner who offers up because they want those points. They want the points, right?

Steve Jermier: Exactly right. Yeah, they get their American Express out. You bet. You bet. And look, the other piece to these programs that gets… And I know this is maybe a little Sally Struthers and getting the violin out, but that’s fine, that’s fine. The piece that people forget about on a regular basis is the intangibles. So we’ve got price, we’ve got approval rates, we’ve got limits, but I think intangibles to me is… It’s just as important as anything else that we do. I already talked about our team, so I’m pretty sure we win on every front there. But beyond that, the digital, the technology, the way we push for innovation, these are things that we do behind the scenes every day to make this program more competitive for you. And I just want to make sure nobody loses sight of that. We take a lot of pride in that, it’s a key part of our program.

Rob Stott: Yeah, absolutely. And it’s in the title, Relationship Management. And I think that’s an important piece of it. And it’s no accident that I think we talked about the team before we dove into the meat of this, because it’s a perfect setup to everything else that goes on that you guys do behind the scenes in order to support our independent retailers. But to stick on it for one more second and just to ask, the retailers today that are seeing this that might have questions or wondering what do they do now, what advice would you give to them as a result of these rate increases that can help them either understand it or… I don’t want to say weather the storm, but is there anything they can do in their business to maybe soften the impact to them?

Steve Jermier: Yeah, of course. Yeah. So a couple of things. One, remember that the increases you’ve seen from a pricing standpoint are on your everyday promotions. We run specials all year. Right now we have a special, we have an all brands… Carrie will get mad at me if I say this wrong. I’ll just say all brands promotion. And as an example, the 12-month is 1.99 through the end of March. So one, the everyday promotions historically represent less than 35%, 40% of our overall mix. So your members are already taking advantage of the specials, take advantage of them more. That’s why we have those. That’s the beauty of you being a Nationwide member, is our partnership with Nationwide afford you promotions that no one else gets. So take advantage of those. That would be the first piece of advice I would give you.

Second, don’t be afraid to try something new. So if historically you’ve always gone down the 60 month, 0% path on mattresses for example, don’t be afraid of 36 or 48. There are customers that need financing today more than ever. I’ll talk about that in a second. But beyond that, and this is the one that’s probably going to make people go, “Whoa, what?” I have taken more requests, Rob, in the last 18 months for special promotions that carry an APR for the customer, meaning a 5.9.9 or a 7.99 or a 9.99 for 36 or 48 or 60 months on equal payments. I’ve taken more of those requests from furniture stores and other traditional retail industries in the last 18 months than I think we’ve seen in the last 10 years. Why is that happening? What are you paying for a mortgage today compared to what you were paying for a mortgage 18 months ago? Customers are okay paying a low fixed competitive APR. And that’s by the way, exactly what those promotions are. There’s no gotcha with these.

So if I give you a 48-month 6.99 equal pay, the 6.99 is fixed for the life of that promotion. There’s no, “If the customer misses a payment now I’m going to get you to 20.” It doesn’t work like that. It’s 6.99 for the life of that promotion. Now, if they miss a payment they get a late fee but we disclose that upfront to them. That the APR, there’s no default or if you do this we’re going to do this to your rate. It’s a fixed APR for the life of the promotion. So if you’ve never offered one of those before here’s what I would recommend, find a deferred or a 0% equal payment promotion that’s priced similarly to one of these reduced APR promotions, pair them together and let the customer pick. So for example, if you have a 12-month deferred, 12-month no interest if paid in full, pair it with a 9.9… Whatever the equal payment promotion is, that’s cost neutral to you.

And go tell your customer, “Mr. And Mrs. Customer, I’ve got two choices for you. If you think you can pay these appliances off in the next year, I’ve got a no interest option. If you don’t think you can pay them off the next year, I’ve got a great low payment, fixed payment, low rate plan for you over here.” And then let the customer pick. Frankly, I like that better than one choice anyways. I don’t like ultimatums, I like options. So from my standpoint, I would say certainly take advantage of the specials, get creative and be flexible and think about, “Hey, can I try something maybe that I’ve never tried before?” And consider doing what I just said on the reduced APRs.

But remember this more than anything else, if we are heading into the dreaded R word, if the recession is looming, those storm clouds are looming on the horizon, here’s what I can tell you. Customers will need financing like what we offer more than they ever have. I can tell you unequivocally right now, average savings rates in the US are below pre-pandemic levels. So the money’s gone from the stimulus, that’s one. Two, average revolving debt is higher than it’s been since pre-2008. Let that marinate for a second. And number three, the average US credit card rate for the first time in forever is 20%. So that’s the customer that’s walking into your store. You don’t think they need financing? You don’t think that they want financing? Give them the option and let them make that decision for themselves. That’d be my advice, Rob.

Rob Stott: And I know back to what you were saying earlier is that the rates you guys look at are not tied to what is going on with the Fed. But if you think from the customer’s perspective, these are conversations they’re having. And they’re seeing… It makes…

Steve Jermier: At the dinner table, right? Yeah.

Rob Stott: These are things they are discussing. And they know if anyone was considering moving 12, 18 months ago, today, they’re probably not. So these are absolutely conversations that they’re comfortable with having, whether it’s with themselves within their family, or you as a retailer, if they’re coming to you for a big purchase, it’s not new to them, they’re following too. So you can have those discussions with your customers. And again, to your point, offer them the option that not only does it give them a choice in the matter as to how they go about financing that purchase, but shows that you care about that customer. You’re looking out for them too. So there’s a lot of good in being able to have those kind… Knowing that you can have those conversations with the customer. So we appreciate it. A lot to dive into there and certainly more to talk about too.

We may have to, I know we joked at the top about having to do two podcasts. We may have to get you on here again to talk about some of the other things we want to. But I do want to ask you the technology side of things and looking at the way you guys have evolved from an offering standpoint, there’s a lot going on that customer… I say customers, our members have advantage… To have the opportunity to take advantage of from you for things like you mentioned the scan-to-pay and other things going on with the digital carts and things like that. So talk about that a little bit about how your tech stack if you will, stacks up across the industry.

Steve Jermier: Yeah. Yeah. So it’s funny, I talked about this on center stage last fall a little bit, and it doesn’t seem like it was that long ago but in other ways it seems like it was a lifetime ago, that all of your members had paper applications and customers are filling them out and it takes forever, and then you got to go enter it into the system. And even then you go, “Hey, I got you approved.” And then they buy something, I got to go back to the system, I got to print off this, you got to sign this, I got to keep it. It’s like Lucille Ball and the Chocolate Factory. Now I got to send it to the US Postal Service to Wells Fargo in Des Moines, Iowa. What in the world?

Rob Stott: No more worrying about waiting to get the physical card in the mail, yada, yada. Weeks later…

Steve Jermier: Yeah, right? Yeah. So you think about where we were and where we are today, so I would start with scan-to-apply. Virtually, every NMG member is eligible for this. I think our minimum requirement is a hundred thousand annually, which from a financing standpoint that covers the overwhelming majority of your group. And what does that do? Well, to me it affords certainly the stores where you maybe have some sales staff that aren’t as comfortable offering financing because I hear this all the time, “What if they get turned down? I don’t want them to walk out the door.” Okay. Look, first of all, that’s a silly argument but okay, let’s go down that path. So I don’t think scan-to-apply should replace the standard application process that we have, which is fully digital by the way. It’s a tablet back and forth process. The disclosures are delivered electronically through Credit Connect via email.

But in those instances where you’ve got Joey sales guy or Sally sales gal and they’re not as comfortable offering financing, think of it this way, if you have a QR code positioned right in front of one of your products where it says, “Take this home with 12 months deferred interest.” Whatever. Hover your phone customer over that QR code and it launches the application on your phone. To me, that’s a great supplement to help those situations where you have someone less apt to offer financing proactively. I think it’s a great fit there. And for the record, we’ve got over 200 members active on that program already. And between Alan and I, we field I don’t know how many new requests each week but it’s growing very, very quickly. So we love scan-to-apply.

In addition to scan-to-apply, we have remote terms processing now. So historically, you would’ve had to print off the invoice, have the customer sign it. We now have two paths digitally where you can give them their special terms. I can email it to them through Credit Connect, if you’re using Credit Connect today. Even if you’re not, you can go into our online resource center and push the terms to the customer via email, they acknowledge the terms. And once they do, you go get funded and you’re paid within 24 to 48 hours. And here’s why I really liked that. Down the road, if there’s an issue with the customer, so let’s go back in our hot tub time machine here real quick. Yester year, if there was an issue with that customer, they’re going to call in and say, “Hey, I got charged too much.” Or, “I didn’t agree to this plan.” Or whatever. All the different reasons that a customer can have a complaint.

And the first step for our disputes team would’ve been to call your store and say, “Go dig out that paperwork. I need you to fax it over to me because you forgot to file your paperwork.” All that stuff. Well today on the digital side, that call, if it’s about the terms of the transaction doesn’t even need to happen. Because I can look at it and say, “Mrs. Customer, you did agree to these terms. We emailed them to mrscustomer@aol.com which is the email address you’ve been using for the last 15 years. I can verify that.” “Oh, it is?” So there’s a lift beyond just the ease of use to it that I think on the backend helps your members as well.

We talk about site-on-time and RWS a lot. The integrations that we have with them, the ability for your customer to not leave their website, and old school they’d redirect to the Wells Fargo domain. You know what? I’m going to use these terms, you can get in trouble. It’s a modal, I think is what they call it. That pops up right there, laid on top of members website, the schematics, the colors stay consistent to what they want for their brand. The customer applies and then they can check out online as well. I will throw a little teaser out there. We’re working on adding a capability through those two channels, through RWS and site-on-time for pre-qualification. Okay?

Pre-qualification online is a big deal. It’s a really big deal. If a customer can find out I’m approved for credit without impacting their credit score, it’s like fishing, we throw a few more lines in the water, we’re probably going to catch more fish. If they can do that without the risk of the impact to their credit score and they know they have some comfort ahead of time, “Hey look, it looks like Wells has got me pre-qualified for $5,000. Let’s go shopping.” That’s next up for both of those engagements and we’re really excited about what that’s going to do from a digital growth perspective.

Rob Stott: No. No, that’s awesome. A lot of cool stuff going on. If anything, the technology side, there’s some really smart people that make all those things happen and make sure that the wires don’t get crossed somewhere in some ethernet cable miles and miles away. But at the end of the day, it is simplifying that process for not just the customer but you the retailer and making sure that… I can’t imagine just the days of even just trying to decipher someone’s writing on a form and making sure that everything… That’s a thing of the past. You don’t have to worry about that anymore.

Steve Jermier: Rob, we used to match signatures. We used to literally match signatures, that’ll give you some perspective.

Rob Stott: It’s crazy. The reduction in headaches is enough to make all of these upgrades worthwhile and appreciate the teaser as well too. So that’s exciting stuff coming down the pike and something for our members on those platforms to look forward to.

Steve Jermier: Absolutely.

Rob Stott: So, recapping, first podcast, what do you think? How do you think you did?

Steve Jermier: Well, I don’t know. I guess I’ll hear from the team and they’ll let me know.

Rob Stott: It was a tough one.

Steve Jermier: I’ll let my team watch it. I’m sure they’re going to give all kinds of pointers on things I said or did wrong, but it’s not as intimidating as standing up on center stage I can tell you that. Because they like to try to put power on the bulb that could keep the shine up. Look, I’ve given up on it. There’s nothing I can do about it. So I think we did okay. Are you feeling good about this?

Rob Stott: Given the subject matter and everything, man, we dove right in. I think we had some fun. So this was a lot of fun. We appreciate you guys taking the time and chatting about something that is important, and our members are certainly going to care about as well. So I know just a few weeks after we publish this, we’ll be together down there in Dallas and get you guys, the members back in front of you. And I’m sure they’re looking forward to getting down there too and chatting it up with that team. So we appreciate the time and appreciate the candor as well. Jumping on a podcast and talking about all this.

Steve Jermier: You bet. You bet. It was good chatting with you. And hi to everybody out there in podcast land and we’re looking forward to seeing y’all down in Dallas.

Rob Stott: And you’re welcome back anytime too.

Steve Jermier: All right. Thanks.

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