Marketing Strategy / Opinion

Another retail giant falters… 7 thoughts to help HMV recover

So HMV’s in trouble, having posted its third profit warning. Conversations about divesting itself of Waterstone’s and HMV Canada are taking place against the background of tumbling share prices and closing stores.

But, here’s the thing. I’m not surprised. And it’s got nothing to do with the increased appetite for digitalisation that’s so often talked about. It’s to do with a marketing and in-store retail strategy that seems to be more on the lines of Woolworth’s than anything else.

HMV needs to change. And I think I know how.

1) Why does HMV exist?

Is it a music retailer? A film retailer? A technology retailer? A clothing retailer?

The company’s recent diversification into new retail areas leaves me – and I’m betting other consumers – confused. No single company can be an expert in all of these areas and increasing product portfolio to try and boost sales smacks of desperation.

Added to this is the really annoying phenomenon of youths playing with iPads that they, in their pre-pubescent states, probably can’t afford, getting in the way of those of us who might be interested. But on that note, why would I buy an iPad from HMV in the first place? There are plenty of other great outlets which will chuck in data deals and so on that HMV just can’t match.

2) Too many products

Going into any HMV store is a nightmare if you’re just in the mood to browse. Racks and racks of CDs and DVDs await you, along with POS, aisle-end and other promotions. Unless you’re focussed on what you want, the choice can be overwhelming.

And this leads to other problems as well. Three times in the last year I’ve strolled in to get a particular album. When I’ve plucked it from the rack, I’ve discovered the same album – at a different price – just behind it.

If that hasn’t happened, I’ve found the full RRP version clutched in my hand in a “2 for £10” deal somewhere else in the store. The poor store staff can’t possibly keep track of all of the different products, prices and locations. It takes about fifteen minutes to check all of the possible locations that the album might be to ensure that I’m not paying over the odds for it…

Frankly it’s more satisfying to go to a good independent retailer. Or even Tesco.

3) Stack ‘em high, sell ‘em cheap

This seems to be the HMV mantra these days. In all of the stores I’ve visited recently, DVDs especially are stacked right down to the floor, some on their sides. Think of all of the times that you reach down to pick something up off the floor. Chances are it’ll be dog poop or rubbish blown out of your pocket.

Not someone’s creative work and something that will bring your many hours of pleasure. Piles of reduced priced products devalue everything that’s sold within, not just that item.

4) Poorly thought out in-store technology

In years gone by, listening posts provided a great deal of my new musical acquisitions. In fact, I even bought something off the last listening post I found (a Karen Elson album. Not too bad).

Now, HMV have these white touch screen things which (if the screen works at all) invariably don’t have any of the sample tracks from any of the albums on their aisle-end displays. I don’t have the money anymore to chance a tenner on an album that looks good but from a band I’ve never heard.

Poor store technology is bad for browsers. And browers probably buy more than they thought they would (as opposed to those who go in for one specific thing).

5) Anodyne experience

At its core, HMV should be an experience brand. After all, music forms the soundtrack to many people’s lives and watching a film is a popular leisure experience which can challenge, entertain, provoke or emote.

Any store, anywhere in the country, feels the same to me. They just put their floor standing piles in a different location.

6) Poor communication of loyalty card points.

I don’t hold an HMV card (although my partner does). I have absolutely no idea why I’d want one and have never seen a communication to persuade me otherwise. Perhaps if I shopped there more often, I would understand, but given the points above, that’s not going to happen any time soon.

7) Price led advertising

Music is about experience, man, not price. But every HMV advert I’ve seen in the last year has been price-led. Not a good move when you’ve got Tesco, Amazon and high volume online businesses cutting out overheads.

And continual price promotion is bad for the brand. It makes any brand look cheap (unless they’re a price-led brand, like Lidl).

So, what would I suggest?

1) Become a specialist again.
Stock a few linked product ranges (music, DVDs, headphones and MP3 players), but really know them well. This would mean understanding what the consumer wants, and giving it to them. Ditch the clothes and the high end technology; they don’t add anything (other than higher overheads and reduced floor space).

2) Trim down the number of products within the different ranges stocked, get the pricing right and really know the products in the selection.
You can’t stock everything, so make sure there’s an ordering in service.

3) Sort out the display racking.
No more floor-level products, no more aisle-ends directly in front of the doors, no more mass stacking (which just devalues all of the product).

4) Fix the in-store technology.
Make sure that the information screens have at least one track from every album that can be listened to. And if the product is out of stock, ensure that the customer can input their email address to be notified when it’s in.

5) Make a visit to an HMV store an experience, not a trip to the local supermarket milk aisle.
Localise, give some flavour and colour to the store. Engage with the local community and work out what they need to realise their cultural/leisure ambitions and then find out how the chain can become an experience partner. In this regard, Waterstone’s isn’t a bad model – they’ve often got cafes, seating areas and so on within them, plus areas for local writers.

6) Tell people why it’s great to be a member.
Don’t just make it about saving money, because HMV’s products will always be found cheaper somewhere else. Make sure that the consumer understands they are joining a community, not just a retailer’s promotion.

7) Advertise to people who enjoy your products, not the penny pinchers.
Create advertising that drives people to the store on a point of difference, not because they can save a few pence (which they can do from Amazon without even getting out of their bed clothes).

Times are turbulent out there, of that there’s no doubt. And I do feel sad that HMV – for so long my first port of call for music – is faltering.

But they’ve only brought it on themselves. Let’s hope, for the sake of their employees, that they can turn it around before it’s all too little, too late…

(Yes, HMV people, I am available for consulting gigs. Drop me an email and let’s chat).


27 thoughts on “Another retail giant falters… 7 thoughts to help HMV recover

  1. The worst thing is that this is not a new problem. HMV has been a dead man walking for years now. Look at Tower records … what is the HMV strategy – copy Tower as closely as possible? HMV has joined a race to the bottom in music retailing. Time is running out and I am amazed that there is no sign that anyone in the leadership team understands this. It is not about falling sales, it is about the end of your whole business model.

    HMV has done well to survive and the cut pricing has no doubt helped the cash flow – but this can only ever be a short term fix. Over the longer term it becomes a weight that will drag you down, as you play a game that you cannot win. Online retailers will win any price war. As they expand outlets, HMV can only lose following this model.

    HMV needs to (as the article absolutely gets right) focus on designing and implementing a new experience. This needs to be a high quality music lovers social experience. It also needs to be partner centric. HMV should not do this alone. Find a few number of partners and build new experiences together. There are examples of this being successfully done in whole range of retail sectors. Look at Apple, REI in the US, even Dixons is doing much better recently – but there are myriads of smaller companies that really excel in being experts in their domain and providing pleasurable and enjoyable visits for customers. Shopping at HMV today is far from this. Instead of it being a destination store, a place you look forward to, on the rare occasions that I do visit I don’t look forward to it. I want to get in and get out as quickly as possible and hopefully spend as little as possible as I don’t want to reward any company for caring about their customers as little as HMV does.

    BUT – this is not what I want. I am a PASSIONATE fan of music and a I want somewhere to immerse myself in music, learn, enjoy, and PURCHASE it.

    Reinvention is possible, but time is running out. Perhaps it is already too late. Only the board and the bankers would know the answer to that. HMV needs to understand what it can do, what it can offer, and then build it. If HMV is to survive it is likely to be in a much smaller form, with a fewer number of better and more profitable stores. Given that the cash flow of HMV today is terrible, it is not going to have the cash to invest in large scale refitting, so there is the decision of whether to build a small number of stores in the new model, or try and (cheaply) retrofit existing ones at scale. The second isn’t a viable option of course and will fail, because it will not fundamentally change the perceptions of customers. They will see HMV is a bit better, but it will do nothing to significantly change habits or purchasing behaviour, so if it doesn’t do that, then the ROI on the refit doesn’t work.

    The ball is in your court HMV … but I’m not hopeful. It has been in your court for the last decade and nothing has changed for the better.

    Additional points to the excellent article above:

    1) Send the executive team to visit the worlds top experience stores. Make them personally pay for the visit – reimburse them in 12 months if they launch the UK next generation store. Travel economy … as you are going to need to visit the US, Europe and Japan!

    2) Talk to people who understand what is possible. Embrace open innovation because there are a lot of people who want to save music shops.

    3) Be bold. Half measures are not possible. Half measures mean that resources are spread too thin to make a difference. You need to make a bang here. The goal needs to be an experience that the world wants to come and see. Get it right and you don’t need PR or advertising.

    4) Innovate the experience and the business model. HMV needs to innovate. Partner with others and share ideas, but innovate. I don’t mean copy, I mean look to what customers really want. It took the genius bar three years to be truly successful at Apple, but they understood the problems customers were having and stuck with it.

    5) Speed up. Set a hard and fast timetable to do this. Set aggressive timescales and meet them. Don’t lower standards. Drive hard, but show people that you are committed.

    And good luck.

    • Hi Gary

      Awesome comment – thank you!

      Bold – innovate – speed – experience: music to my ears (if you’ll forgive such a pun!).

      I totally agree with all of the points that you’ve raised. For passionate music fans like us, I get the impression that HMV isn’t really much more than a new Woolworths, racing to produce anodyne experiences, rack-em-high mentalities and cost cutting measures in a price battle that will, inevitably, be lost thanks to online competition.

      Even their online experience is dull with no hints of discovery – i.e. when I go into an artist or an album list, I want to be tempted with something that I haven’t heard yet.

      Only time will tell with HMV – but the outlook is pretty poor at the moment in my opinion.

      I’m also interested to see where Waterstone’s goes now that it’s been sold off. What are your thoughts on that ex-arm of the business?


      • Neil – thanks for the comments. Agreed on HMV. Dead unless they change, and I don’t think they will change enough. The evidence so far is denial of the inevitable. If you work at HMV, print out these comments (I doubt they use the Internet!!) and leave on the desk of exec team with a post it note saying “read this if you want to have a job in 12 months”. Seriously. Do it.

        Waterstones … interesting. Here is why. I’ll stick to 5 points.

        1) Experience: Waterstones ‘gets’ experience much better than HMV does. It could do much more in terms of being more social, focusing on the environment (more chairs, changing book layout [to show covers, not just spines], and adding more tablet layouts with recommendations, bit is a league ahead of HMV. So, overall a C+ or even a B-, but it needs to push the boundaries more. Drive card benefits more, incorporate social media better and KNOW ME and reward me. In terms of people – generally good. People in Waterstones love books, book better publicise expertise and knowledge. The people are a huge asset, so use them better. I like Waterstones, but I don’t love it. That is your challenge. Make me into a raving, passionate fan. Also, get serious about technology. Book finders need to be much better … and be accurate. ‘We may have that book’ is useless. Sort out your stock control. RFID could help here with tracking. INNOVATE!

        2) Pricing: This is a joke at Waterstones. Full price for everything outside of discounted top sellers. In many cases this means up to TWICE the price of Amazon. Unsustainable as a business model. It doesn’t need to be a discount retailer, but full pricing is not sustainable when my iPhone can scan the barcode and allow me to order from Amazon in less than 10 seconds. The solution – REWARD ME – as a regular purchaser and BIG book buyer. You don’t need to be the cheapest, but also, don’t rip me off. I recognise I need to pay more to have the book now, but if the cost is less than £2.80 (the cost of Amazon postage), you will lose my business and I will wait until tomorrow. If I have Amazon Prime, good luck – no chance.

        3) Stock: Needs some real thinking and innovation here. Where are the special editions, smaller publishers, local content, self-publishers? INNOVATE. Amazon is building relationships directly with authors … what is Waterstones doing? They have a huge asset in the shops to use this. The online/offline experience needs fixing. What happens if they don’t have the book in stock that I want? Once I ask about this in store you need to offer to ship to me next day and match Amazon pricing on this. If you don’t, then you don’t just lose the sale, you lose the customer. When I last looked, the speed was from years ago … “we can get that book in 6 weeks”?? Really?? Or I can order on Amazon and have it at my house tomorrow. Start with some core use cases and nail these. Embrace technology – fix the supply chain, but innovate. Where is ‘print on demand’. Waterstones should list 20 million books in each store and be able to supply any one in an hour. Is ‘print on demand’ the answer? I don’t know, but supply chains in weeks are certainly not. HMV should have nailed this too, but with downloads, this is probably too late now.

        4) Business model. Needs to innovate and build loyalty much better. What about returns, buy-backs, selling my books for me? I don’t have the answers, but see no innovation from Waterstones in this area. The model needs to evolve – not completely reinvent, but evolve. Try new things and test concerns locally. Empower managers to try things. And whilst I am talking about local managers – give them responsibility for the store. Allow them to innovate, to invest locally, to build connections with customers. I have a more social experience in Starbucks with its book groups and community events than I do in Waterstones!!! Wake up. Start small, engage the community.

        5) Long term future: Much harder to call than HMV. The problem is the business model is changing from underneath it, and I see no response from Waterstones that gives me confidence. The pressures are the same as music (i.e. supermarkets, online, electronic channels), but there is a greater affinity and love for bookshops, so there is a window to change. Books will endure, but bookshops may only exist in niches, so Waterstones needs to define what a big retailer can do and show the way. Learn from Borders. The writing is on the wall unless you make these changes. Borders in the US was kicked into touch by Amazon, but for today Barnes & Noble is surviving. It embraced technology, innovates, discounts and builds strong loyalty through a reward scheme. Its online presence is well integrated and they are driving social strategy … so what is Waterstones doing … not all of this.

        Same problems – dying business model and an unwillingness to boldly innovate. Without a willingness to change, the outcome will be the same as Borders. Even more than HMV, I really hope this doesn’t happen. The ball is in their court though. Lets hope they start to make changes now rather than do what HMV has done and ruin the brand and the stores.

        • I’ve got to be honest – my local Waterstone’s is pretty good at giving local authors space (both rack and for meet-and-greet). I also love the handwritten staff cards explaining why they loved the books – such a wonderful personal touch.

          But I do agree with you about pricing, which can be expensive (nothing like HMV however where I’ve found the same CD at three different prices in different racks around the store!). However, I think that people are willing to pay if the experience is good. Also, books are a different kinaesthetic relationship to other items, so I believe that people accept some extra cost there for the actual purchase.
          Running up against big volume discounters like Amazon is a problem for many retailers, which is where I think added brand value comes into play…

          Love your other ideas about buy-back etc. Will have to think more on those!

  2. Hi Neil,

    An interesting article, with some interesting assertions. Whilst I don’t disagree with all of your points, I feel that the three and a half years spent working in HMV earlier in my 20s allows me to counter some of your arguments with some authentic insight.

    Firstly, I can understand your claim that diversification is confusing. Yet the clothing etc. is all film and music related. The technology is music and film related. The products are diverse, yet the raison d’être is the same.

    You claim that there is too much stock in an HMV – that it becomes overwhelming for customers and that the store should focus on stocking fewer items, with a facility for customers to order required stock in. Surely if I go into a shop that never has a diverse range of stock and staff have to order things in, then this gradually negates the need to frequent the shop at all? Surely I would just then shop online?

    Stack ‘em high, sell ‘em cheap – this is one of the mantras of modern business. Having done much stock ordering for HMV, the mark-up on a huge order of a cheap DVD is significantly higher than a one-off order for a £10 CD. It’s a simple business model – and in the current climate, consumers are much more likely to make an impulse purchase of a DVD for £3 than picking up a rare CD for £15.

    Regarding price-led advertising, again, I appreciate that music is about the experience, but today’s consumers are SO price sensitive. There is absolutely NO point WHATSOEVER providing a fantastic in-store experience for shoppers around the release of a new album that costs £20, when other retailers are offering it for £7. Simple. If HMV has a popular game / film / music new release that they have negotiated a commercial deal to sell cheaper than the competition, then quite simply, it would be foolish not to pursue this mode of advertising.

    Fundamentally, we have to acknowledge that the HMV store model is starting to wobble, but that this is due unequivocally to the retail environment, the economy and the advent of the Internet. HMV CANNOT be a ‘specialist’ stockist that holds 2 copies of every back catalogue album ever released, because the economics do not work. Buying in two copies of an old album is more expensive than buying 100,000 units and distributing these as part of a sale. Internet companies have eroded this model by hoarding large quantities of EVERYTHING in warehouses in Guernsey, which they can buy in bulk and flog cheaper.

    Finally, I agree that making more of an in-store experience would be a wonderful move – as an ex employee I had to sit a music and film exam just to get a sales assistant job there and the brand is so strong, the people that work in HMV are SO passionate – maximising this is vital. But at the end of the day, consumers in 2011 are savvy, digital denizens who are price-conscious and incentivised by cheap deals.

    HMV, unfortunately, is in very real danger of going under.

    But its marketing and business model is not to blame: we as consumers are.

    • Hey Callum

      Thanks for the comment and I appreciate your insight as an ex-employee.

      With regards to the music and the clothing, I’ve never felt that these are integrated into the overall experience. Certainly the way that the new tech based stores seems to be going leaves me with the impression that HMV are actually moving away from music related tech. Laptops, iPads, DS etc wouldn’t be my first choice for music or film reproduction and the new Windows OS doesn’t make me think of a superior sound or viewing experience.

      If the tech is all related in this way, why not sell TVs or decent audio equipment?

      The too much stock and cut price line thoughts are linked. Worthing and Brighton stores generally resemble jumble sales with no clear customer path around the stores if just browsing. And I don’t like piles of stuff hanging around – just looks untidy and univiting.
      In fact, my two favourite indie stores (Resident and Ape in Brighton) never do this. Everything is nicely racked and people are happy to flick and browse.

      In terms of price, I concede that consumers are price conscious. However, consumers also know the ways to compare/contrast the offerings. Competing on price alone when you’re a heritage brand is to miss the entire point of your existence – which is surely to add vale to the consumer experience and ensure that you’re a first destination for purchase?

      I’ve heard a few people talk about the entrance exam now. Great stuff! However I’m not sure that this is done any more, judging by my local store staff…

      Consumers have got the world of the internet in their pockets and, if they’re like me, will scan the barcode of a DVD/CD they’re interested in to see if they can get a better price elsewhere, including online.

      For this fact alone, I think that HMV needs to reconsider its brand DNA and look at how it can add value to the experience, not just shave money off…

      • Appreciate your comments re. the technology. I left HMV in 2007 and have been in touch with several mates (some of whom still work there) ever since. The technology route was, from all reports, an attempt to claw back high margins on stock that can be marked up (and sold at a high profit).

        And again, completely agree re. the music exam – several people I know who have joined in recent years have not had to do this. One Christmas temp I worked with one year actually didn’t know who the Beatles were. SERIOUSLY.

        When I was a teenager, going into HMV was a destination, like you said. My mates and I would get the train into Brighton to go there.

        I would LOVE to see HMV return to its heritage routes, but feel this may be too late in the current economic climes. I firmly believe in the strength / advoacy of your own people. When I worked there, it was a fairly liberal place, yet we still had to behave like automatons at times – we weren’t allowed to have drinks behind the counter etc., yet any independent worth its salt has coffee stains everywhere and a comfortable, homely feel.

        I believe that HMV is one brand on the High Street that does have a veritable claim to genuine heritage. But as you rightly claim, achieveing this in the current market is an extremely difficult challenge.

        • It’s only too late when the doors shut.

          There are SO many opportunities out there. Some of the best music stores (I’m looking at you here, Vancouver) I have ever visited have that homely feel. Places to sit, places to stand, places to socialise.

          Stores like HMV do not build in any social space – and I think that is a problem. Especially when you have no discovery space either.

          I want to be excited when I go into an HMV. I want to feel the thrill of the discovery. I don’t.

          As a different angle, replace all of the CDs and DVDs with underpants. Replace the tech with expensive shoes. Replace the books on the shelves with belts and wallets.

          Does anything fundamental happen to the store? No it doesn’t.

          And, for me, that’s the nub of the problem. If you had a store that wouldn’t work selling underpants, you know that you’ve got part of the DNA right. But when you can swap layout and not lose anything, I think that’s a massive problem.

    • I hope HMV are reading this. Great comments.

      @Callum – agreed about the profits in pile high vs. niche.

      Your point about the local connection is well made. I used to shop in HMV religiously and spent a great deal on dance 12″ in the 1980s. The assistant’s knowledge, relationships with pluggers and local suppliers was key to this, but that is gone now. I could play music on turntables and they welcomed this interaction. There was a social experience on a Saturday and Sunday morning; and I spent a fortune. They knew me, I knew them and it worked for both of us.

      What is left today is an unpleasant pile ’em high discount retailer. I don’t enjoy shopping there and certainly I’m more likely to buy from Tesco, Amazon or Play than drive to HMV.

      The pressure from internet retailers and a dozen other pressures is not making life easy for HMV, but when customers don’t like shopping in a store, the writing is on the wall for its future.

      • Personal contact goes a huge way to converting customers to advocates.

        The problem with the pile ’em high is that you get some many people looking for so many things that the store staff can’t possibly hope to talk to everyone who wants a conversation…

        Customers need to love shopping in the store. Not for the bargains, because these can be had online, but for the ambience and the brand values. That’s where HMV really needs to shape up…

      • Hi Gary.

        I worked in 2 HMV stores – one in Canary Wharf and one in Brighton – they were worlds apart in terms of audience / customer / store layout etc.

        CW was very ‘in and out quickly’ for the lunchtime banker crowd.

        Brighton was very chilled, had loads of room and was much more about ‘dwell time’.

        Funny you talk about vinyl Gary – in the Brighton store, we had decks at the back and many punters used to come in and spend a lot of time going over the vinyls, including Fatboy Slim!

        But interesting to see in these two examples how different stores could be…

        • Nice to hear that they were really differentiated.

          The Churchill Sq Brighton store was a very different feel to the one just down the road – that one had a wonderful upstairs for browsing… But sadly I think that one’s shut now…

          • I worked in the Western Road one and unfortunately yes, it is closed down now. It had FIVE floors in its heyday and when I worked there in ’07, it was down to 2. What was interesting was snooping around those closed floors and seeing deserted floors with old GameBoy demo pods etc. – basically an HMV ghost town.

        • Ahh Brighton record shops. I used to love spending time in the lanes visiting the smaller record shops and indeed playing vinyl on the decks at the back of HMV! I’m not suggesting Canary Wharf and Brighton should be the same. We should embrace that diversity within a common ‘experience’. Today, too many stores are simply bland and fail to be great at anything. If McDonalds and Starbucks can manage diversity within a common service experience, HMV certainly can.

  3. And just to be clear, my comments aren’t saying that reinventing the customer experience and the way we sell music isn’t desirable – it is! I LOVE discovering new music and chatting to people and discovering new passions. However these days, this is done in the pub, listening to personal playlists of different bar staff. But as you say, a music store should be a destination!!! But HMV is trying to compete in a certain environment – and that environment is dictating its downfall, not the business model.

    • So if I am reading this correctly … in order to survive HMV needs to sell large quantities of the latest releases and whatever other material its suppliers want to discount. If that is the case, then I stick by my original post. It is a dead man walking.


      1) The shopping experience is key at all price points, not just high end. If this wasn’t true, markets would flourish. Shops need to invest, refresh and update their role in the eyes of the customer. The retail graveyard is full of those who didn’t. Try and find a leading retailer that hasn’t innovated. Even Lidl, Aldi and discount retailers have a more pleasant experience. If a small niche retailer can have a better personalised relationship with me, then HMV will be ‘caught in the middle’ (see Porter’s strategy). The result of this is an inability to compete on price ‘or’ service, and a loss to competitors who lead in these respective areas.

      2) HMV is not the biggest player in town in music and video sales. It cannot, and will not be able to secure the biggest discounts in the future. As competitors look to differentiate and put increasing pressure on HMV, they will use their deeper pockets to secure preference in distribution and pricing.

      I believe that HMV can survive and ultimately prosper over the long term, but not in its current form. Innovate or die.

        • @Neil –

          I didn’t define the answer 🙂

          My point was that if we accept the status quo, then the future is not good, and I personally believe will result in company failure. I think there are a number options available to HMV, which are not necessarily, but retaining the current model isn’t a viable one.

          I can see many possibilities, but I don’t know what the final answer is. I think HMV have to discover this through speaking to customers and understanding their wants and needs, envisioning potential solutions, testing and trialing. They will not get this right by guessing – or by doing nothing. What I see are a number of key factors that I would expect as part of a final solution missing from what we see today.

          A discovery space seems a great idea. if it was my call, I’d quickly build it and test it in a store with video monitoring the space and ethnographers analysing it. But that is one part of what is needed. This is not a simple problem. Any more advice than that for HMV can come as part of an engagement … give me a call if they email you!!!

          • Totally agree. Status quo is seeing the company slide and that isn’t sustainable!

            Testing and trialling is right – I’ve got one good friend who believes passionately in getting out there, testing, trialling, redefining on the fly before codifying into a model. Retail space should be flexible enough to allow this to happen.

            Leverage in social media, and you could have a hugely potent mixture for success…

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