You Pays Your Money…..

A few months ago, I sat in a Dutailier glider and discovered that I had lived half a century with no concept of how comfortable a chair can be. My wife had exactly the same reaction. So we’d like to buy a couple of those chairs.

Unfortunately, Dutailier no longer makes the model we sat in. Fortunately, they make similar models. Unfortunately, they make one hundred and thirty nine models, of which at least fifty-nine appear to be serious contenders for “model most similar to the one we sat in”.

Those customers who somehow manage to choose among these models are then offered a choice of 113 different upholstery fabrics, 22 different wood finishes, and 10 “model options” (including “glide only”, “glide plus multiposition lock”, “glide plus autolock” and “glide plus multiposition lock plus autolock”) for a staggering 3,455,540 possible chairs. (That’s an approximation, because some models come with more or fewer options.) Color me paralyzed.

When I reported last week on economist Mark Skousen’s frustration with excessive choice on the toothpaste aisle, a lot of commenters saw no problem. Why can’t Skousen just buy the toothpaste he likes and ignore the others? But in this case, I can’t just buy the chair I like because I have no way of knowing which one it is. I’m willing to bet that somewhere among those 139 models is a worthy successor to the chair I fell in love with. But short of ordering 139 chairs and returning 138 of them, I have no idea how to find it.

In other words, it wouldn’t be so bad if Dutailier’s only sin were to offer a ridiculous number of choices. The problem is that they’ve both offered a ridiculous number of choices and discontinued the perfectly good choice I’m looking for. What’s the point? When you already make the best chair in the history of the Universe, why would you go so far out of your way to keep it out of the hands of your customers?

I wonder if someone in the marketing department at Dutailier has a vision of the customer who is better off with 139 choices than with, say, 138. And while I’m at it, I also wonder why half their models are labeled “For the Nursery” and half “For the Living Room”, with no discernible pattern. The chair I sat in was in neither a nursery nor a living room.

If you share my frustration with this kind of thing — or even if you don’t — do click through to this hilarious blog post by our valued frequent commenter Doctor Memory. (For some reason, that link seems to take you to the bottom of the page. So first click, then scroll up.) Then come back and help me understand why retailers keep doing this. I want to believe there’s a good reason. But I’m stumped.


40 Responses to “You Pays Your Money…..”

  1. 1 1 Roger

    I buy my chairs and cameras at Costco, and avoid these problems.

  2. 2 2 jerry

    I was just coming here to say the exact thing that Roger has said.

    One reason I love Costco is that you are given one choice, or two choices, and that’s about it, and you leave knowing you got a good deal, and good quality.

  3. 3 3 Bennett Haselton

    I have no idea why companies discontinue products that seem wonderful, and I’ve been unbelievably aggravated by this before, but I thought you’d be interested in Farhad Manjoo’s recent Slate column arguing that Best Buy can save itself from bankruptcy by narrowing down consumer choices:

    “When you walk in to buy a 32-inch TV, the guy in the blue shirt shouldn’t make you choose between a dozen nearly identical models. Instead, he should show you a single set, a TV that Best Buy’s experts have determined offers the best features at the best price.”

    I know that I’ve walked over to Best Buy’s TV display many times, felt overwhelmed by the array of choices, and never bought one. I think the problem is that the variety of features makes me want to go home and research what the different features mean and how they work, so that I can pay for features that are really important, while avoiding overpaying for the ones that are just gimmicks. (One salesperson said the super-high refresh rates don’t matter – he said the human eye can’t detect more than 120 Hz and usually not more than 60 Hz.) But then I never get around to it, and I get by for another month with my crummy old cathode ray tube television set (as far as I can tell, the last one in my city).

  4. 4 4 Mike H

    You can have any chair, as long as it’s black.

  5. 5 5 David

    If you can’t tell the difference, why do you care?

    With a camera or something subject to technological obsolescence, I might worry about seeing a review that I was duped or kick myself when the price is $100 lower next month. Or, in the case of music, I still am not sure what to do about moving from CDs to the digital age, so I just quit listening to music. I think that whatever choice I make, there is a high probability that it will be idiotic in hindsight.

    But with a rocker, that form of buyer’s remorse shouldn’t be an issue. We bought one back when kid #1 came along, and I haven’t thought twice about it.

  6. 6 6 Jonathan Kariv

    First thought on this one is that you’ve used exactly 1 Dutailier. Which is currently your best estimate for the comfort level of the average Dutailier chair. It seems fairly likely that you’d find about half of the Dutailier chairs you’re considering better than the one you used? If you sat in 2 different models then you expect a third of them to be better than your preffered choice (sat in n of them then a 1/(n+1) of the available options “should” beat the champ etc).

    1. How many different models of these chairs did you actually try?
    2. As I’m guessing (on little evidence) it’s something really small (1 or maybe 2) you could order 3-4 of them and return all but the best 1 (of the new sample). Fairly decent chance it’s not dutailiers best but it does probably beat the one you tried.

  7. 7 7 EricK

    So the Armchair Economist can’t make an economic decision regarding armchairs?!

  8. 8 8 Phil

    Either the chair you liked is significantly more comfortable than the other 139, or it is not.

    If it *is* more comfortable, then perhaps the only reason you found it is that they made 140 models! Because, if they only made 10, then the odds would be 13:1 against you being able to get the model that you love so much. In this case, choice helped you.

    If it is NOT more comfortable, then maybe all 140 are roughly equal. In which case, what does it matter to you that they make 139 other models?

    Perhaps your problem is not that there are 139 models in the catalog, but that there are not enough models on the showroom floor for you to figure out their features and comfort. Probably if all 139 — or even 15 or 20 — were in one place for you to try out, you’d have no problem finding one you liked.

  9. 9 9 Steve Landsburg

    Jonathan Kariv:

    First thought on this one is that you’ve used exactly 1 Dutailier. Which is currently your best estimate for the comfort level of the average Dutailier chair.

    I can’t think of any reasonable model under which this would be the case. Given how much I liked that chair, my best estimate is that it’s among the Dutailier chairs I would like the best.

  10. 10 10 Ken B

    “Given how much I liked [the only one I tried], my best estimate is that it’s among the [ones] I would like the best.”

    Many a young man has felt the same way about first wives, and young women about first husbands. Steve’s post can be viewed as a defense of the ‘no sex before marriage’ rule …

    Never saw you as such a traditionalist Steve!

  11. 11 11 roystgnr

    One reason I love Costco is that you are given one choice, or two choices, and that’s about it, and you leave knowing you got a good deal, and good quality.

    Well, you leave knowing you had no other option, anyway. In hindsight, the philosophy of “any color so long as it is black” was a questionable idea for Ford car selection and was an *atrocious* idea for Costco’s child car seat selection. I’m guessing that whoever is in charge of their procurement process lives somewhere cold…

  12. 12 12 khodge

    Maybe you are not really the target customer?

    In your response to Jonathon Kariv: properly speaking you could not have made that sentence 2 months ago. Can you really make it now?

  13. 13 13 Phil

    As a practical matter, I sat in some exceptionally comfortable “Stressless” (that’s the trademark) chairs a few months ago. They were all similar in comfort, although there were minor variations.

    This leads me to suspect that Jonathan Kariv’s hypothesis is reasonable.

    Steve, here’s a reasonable model, which I found with “stressless” — (1) the chairs all have some specific characteristic common to all of them. (2) this characteristic makes them significantly more comfortable to you than all other chairs, by an order of magnitude.

    Would that model not make Jonathan Kariv’s assumption plausible?

    Put another way: you’ve been eating only granola all your life. You have a slice of pizza for the first time, and love it an order of magnitude greater than granola. There is little basis to assume that the pizza you had is much better than average, although you could make an argument that the expected value is *slightly* better than average.

  14. 14 14 roystgnr

    Oh, but back on topic: suppose Costco instead decided to sell only light-colored car seats instead. Great for those of us in Texas, sure, but wouldn’t that be suboptimal for anyone in a cold climate who lets their children drink juice in the car?

    Same problem with limiting Best Buy’s TV selection. I bought a TV from them 5 or so years ago, and I’m very glad that I had more than size differences to choose from. This was pre-3D, pre-LED, but they still had 1080p vs 720p, plasma vs LCD, top-end company vs cheap-and-questionably-reliable, and $1500 vs $2500, and even if there was a true “best” option in each quality category (there wasn’t – plasma vs LCD depended on what you use the TV for), for obvious reasons not all of the best options are going to be available at the lowest price. If Manjoo cares so little about the options that he doesn’t even realize these sorts of tradeoffs are important, why wouldn’t he be equally satisfied just flipping a coin a few times and being done with it? Trying to prevent potentially-better alternatives from existing doesn’t actually improve the alternative you end up with…

    I can’t help but wonder if Falkenstein’s “envy dominates greed” theory explains distaste for consumer choice. If you’re not as good as average at navigating certain choices yourself, then restricting those choices would make a small expected reduction in the absolute quality of your own life, but would pay off in relative status terms by more greatly reducing the quality of life of others who would have gotten more out of that wider selection. It sounds irrational, sure, but does it sound accurate? If you’re happy with the good TV you bought and then you find out your neighbors bought a better TV more cheaply, do you become more happy or less?

  15. 15 15 Josh


    How much choice is too much choice and who gets to decide?

    I contend that the market gets to decide. If consumers deem that there are too many choices or that the choices are indistinguishable (or both), the firm will suffer.

  16. 16 16 Scott H.

    Another culprit in getting rid of great models and building tons of new ones — Nike (and other shoe companies). You find the perfect running shoe or basketball shoe and the next thing you know, it’s discontinued. The funny thing about Nike is that I’ve seen them discontinue a model without even having an adequate replacement. Frustrating.

  17. 17 17 Drew

    Was going to post something about the similar case of shoes… and then someone already has. There has to be a good case to make for this practice. And you should be prepared to accept that you are not in the core demographic that makes this an effective strategy… which means that you are destined to be unhappy. :)

    The indifference principle suggests that unusual preferences often help you gain unusual benefits. But this seems like case in which that can be a double-edged sword. Most people who watch this particular market seem to suggest that Nike quickly discontinues their popular shoes not because they want to make huge fans happy, but because the majority of the shoe market doesn’t pay attention to what works, but rather what’s the latest and greatest innovation.

  18. 18 18 Jonathan Kariv

    After thinking about it some more I think I need to concede this one, but I’m going to defend a weaker proposition that the dutailer you got was probably not near the top of the dutailer range.

    I think Steve’s is using a model that’s something like this.
    M= B+ C
    Where M is model comfort
    B is brand comfort
    and C is the comfort level of this model having taken into account brand comfort.

    He has sat in alot of chairs and the winner (by a landslide) is this particular model. So he concludes perfectly correctly that for this particular discontinued chair comfort of B is high and C is probably positive. Because C is positive, assuming C is approximately symmetic we can conclude that the chair he sat in was probably better than the average Dutailer chair.

    A claim I will hold onto for at least a little longer is that C is probably incredibly small relative to B. This is based on a belief that chair brands vary alot more than chairs within brands. This is based more on my intution that Dutailer seems to have alot of virtually indistinguishable models so C can’t be that big.

    So yes I do need to admit that your best estimate isn’t quite that you got a middle of the road Dutailler but if we actually bothered to get a model going (with data about every chair you’ve ever sat in) and computed sample variances etc, I suspect the best estimate would be fairly close.

    I’m also tempted to say that the very fact it is discontinued might tilt our view of this particular models comfort towards the lower end of the brand. So maybe it washes out after all.

  19. 19 19 Peter Tennenbaum

    Feature creep gone awry. It can produce emotional torment in sensitive victims.

    I thought that the customer was always right! Why not search EBAY or put in an order with some company that specializes in locating specialty items for an “elite”clientele?

    Look into estate sales. People are dying daily, or so I’ve read. Perhaps the secondary (etc.) markets have yet to notice its extraordinary value and you won’t have to sell stocks and pay capital gains to own one.

    Get an original estimate on sales and demographics. Combine this with actuarial tables. Perform a computation! Unless you’ve discussed this with your (present) neighbors (and you BELIEVE them) there is a non-zero probability that a dream chair is two or three doors away.

    Or there is a time-share somewhere… Markets! Faith. Prayer.

  20. 20 20 Doctor Memory

    Steve: FWIW the link to my blog, when I click on it in Chrome, goes to the top of the page. Dunno why it’s acting up for you.

    For what it’s worth, I’m inclined to see this not so much as a market failure (after all, consumers largely seem to put up with it and find ways to buy more or less the product that they want, often creating secondary markets for filters and tastemakers ranging from CostCo to personal shoppers), but as a clear indication of something having gone deeply wrong in whatever passes for education among senior executives at consumer goods firms. Somehow the mantra of “more models, faster” got internalized as an unquestioned good, and it’s going to be hard work (by, thankfully, someone else) to undo the damage.

    Meanwhile, go long AAPL and any other company that seems to understand the problem.

  21. 21 21 Robert Ayers

    What Steve needs is a good chair salesperson — human or otherwise.
    Years ago, after an winter-long sequence of scotch tastings, I went to a liquor store (Beltramos, Palo Alto CA) and asked to speak to the scotch buyer. At the large scotch display I told him “After the tastings, I really like scotch A and I really like scotch B. What I would like best is a scotch that is ‘even more B’: If you plot A and B in the space of scotches, and draw a line from A to B and extend it an equal distance, what scotch are you near? He smiled at this, thought for awhile, and then selected a bottle and said “This one.”
    And he was right.
    I would think that Dutailier could produce a brochure that, in effect, places each of their chairs in a n-dimensional space of chair characteristics.

  22. 22 22 Ken B

    @Robert Ayers. Good story. It’s odd how intuition can work. Back when I was in radio a young woman was putting together a show and had about a 20 minute gap to fill and wanted advice. I looked at her playlist, and recommended a piece she did not know. She came back raving about how perfect it was. Sometimes you need someone with experience.

    But what was the scotch?

  23. 23 23 CJohn

    Just for fun, I stopped by a chair dealer offering lots of Dutailier chairs, plus a dozen other brands.
    (I should add that I once worked for a billionaire, so I’ve experienced my share of super-comfy chairs, and have my preferences.) I’m not sure why this is so vexing:

    Step 1: “This looks comfy, I’ll sit on it.”
    Step 2: Repeat step 1 with different chairs.
    Step 3: Ask hovering chair specialist, “I like this chair. Any other suggestions?”
    Step 4: Repeat step 1 with more chairs. Also, the word ‘chair’ starts to sound weird.
    Step 5: Narrow down list to 3. Begin prolonged sitting/simulated napping; test assorted feature.
    Step 6: In under 40 mins. have decided upon Chair “X” from 500+ chairs. Pass on opportunity to test drive 3-4 sample chairs at home. Could there be a better chair? Maybe; but don’t care: Chair X is really, really comfy and I couldn’t ask anything more from a chair. 

    Also @EricK: Ha!

  24. 24 24 Cjohn

    Seriously, I’d think a clever economist could use this post to swing free Dutailier swag.

  25. 25 25 Paul T

    Bennett Haselton: “I have no idea why companies discontinue
    products that seem wonderful…”

    It’s partly due to the custom of the employer/employee social
    contact – no termination except for extreme business conditions.

    The firm has product designers, marketing execs, etc. whose
    jobs depend on a constant flow of new models. Their
    imperative is straightforward. Also, management can go to
    the board and ssy “Look how busy we are, progress every day!”
    You see it especially in the software biz – don’t you always
    love the upgrades?

    This is a strong argument in favor of the ‘lean firm’: minimum
    salaried personnel, use temporary, project contractors as
    much as possible.

    And it’s why companies often secretly welcome a bad quarter –
    it gives them excuse to clean out the deadwood.

  26. 26 26 Todd Kuipers

    My take is that the selection of chairs is noisy, but the mechanics and quality each of those chairs is roughly equal. Instead of being paralysed, understand that the majority of choice is aesthetics: pick a style that doesn’t clash with your current room set, pick an appropriate colour for the wood and cushion, and you’ve made your choice. If that does cause your brain to shut down, as others have said above: you’re not the target market for that company, and Costco is your best bet.

    The same thing happens when you walk into a big box retailer and look at their beer selection – a couple/few dozen alternatives, but 80% are essentially the same with different colours on the label. If you’re in the market for the 80% lager, you may find the choice difficult – but a random choice in that mix is likely to yield an acceptable result.

  27. 27 27 Daniel Hewitt

    This does seem to be a general trend that I’ve noticed too. Check out the chocolate bars or soft drinks next time you go inside a gas station. My stab at it…

    1. Complexity does not cost what it used to, due to computerized ordering, logistics, warehousing, sequencing, etc. Most of these models likely use many common parts, and the rest are easily interchangeable by whomever assembles them, and cheaper error-proofing technology makes them more difficult for the assembler to mix up.

    2. Not all consumers get overwhelmed. Some probably even get satisfaction from carefully choosing what they perceive is just right for them. Maybe it doesn’t feel quite so mass-produced, even though it is.

    3. A base product with a low price gets the customers attention. This might not be the case for chairs, but it is for cars, to give one example.

  28. 28 28 iceman

    Guess Kahneman et al were right…if only you’d never sat in that first chair, the next one would’ve been the greatest experience of your life. Alas now you’ll deprive your backside of all that joy while you make the perfect the enemy of the good.

    Personally I find having more options is usually a net utility gainer; even when overwhelmed, my initial anguish is more than offset by the pleasurable relief of having someone (preferably someone I trust who enjoys figuring this stuff out) tell me “this is the one you want” and dumping all the baggage. Maybe that’s reverse prospecting? I’m sure it doesn’t actually have to be the best solution to have the salutary effect; ignorance is bliss, at least when there are other ways to spend my time that are more important to me. This might be what BBY’s model was built on – “see this stuff is so complicated, you’ll really appreciate our knowledgeable sales staff.” We may regret using them as a showroom for Amazon.

    @Doctor Memory – the best advice I ever got on cameras was from a very tech-savvy friend who simply said the best camera is one you’re actually likely to have with you when you need it (hence the heavy use of phone cameras). A gazillion mega-pixels are worthless if they’re sitting in your closet at the moment your kid is doing something cute.

  29. 29 29 Peter Tennenbaum

    Please give a “modern” example of some similar product–not something like a lumber 2 by 4 (which is NOT its original size) –that is:

    1. Universally regarded as “First Rate”
    2. Still sold in its EXACT same original description and form and/or some intermediate form and description. (I mention intermediate because, perhaps, Prof. Landsburg and wife “experienced” an improved version of a previous model.)

    What Prof. Landsburg writes is somewhat misleading, IMO. There is an emotional component that draws people in. Fine. Great. He does not complain about the new product(s) but about some previous one being discontinued. Yet he HAD the opportunity to buy one (or ten) originally!

    If it was “love at first sit” then why delay?

    Did he inquire–at that time–about the life-cycle of chairs from this company, particularly the model that enthralled him? Did he inquire about in-store stocks and/or shipping times–availability? This is standard procedure for me, especially when I find something extraordinary that I can possibly afford.

    I still regard the software program MathCad, version 2.5 (circa late 80s), which ran under DOS 3.0 to be the finest, most useful, technical software ever written for end-users. They could have simply kept the exact same features and simply increased memory availability (and, therefore, the bound on indexes, decimal point precision, etc.). But it’s software, operating systems, blah, blah blah. I can still use it, but printing requires jumping over innumerable hoops.

    Why should one expect ANY product from the manufacturing world to remain invariant over time? That seems a bit naive. Besides, perhaps the company gave ample warning via their website, newsletter, etc., that this model was being discontinued.

    Further, my guess is that a competent study would reveal that this “problem” has grown worse; product life spans and support have decreased over time to as short as possible. Some exceptions? Hopefully. Some world-class products? Maybe.

    Again, it is a mix of an emotional component and an intellectual one. If Prof. Landsburg had bought some chairs would he still be so concerned about this issue? What about spare parts? Maybe a component would break or wear out. How long should a company support a discontinued product, even with spare parts? My understanding is that, in some areas–such as automobiles–this is governed by law.

    Often, it’s an unfathomably complicated, irrational world, even with “standard” integers to work with. Hopefully, however, they won’t be taken off the market.

    Long post. I will cease polluting the board for some time (a word a day seems reasonable).

  30. 30 30 Steve Landsburg

    Peter Tennenbaum:

    If it was “love at first sit” then why delay?

    Because the chair that I sat in was not for sale!

  31. 31 31 Phil King

    Isn’t it a demand-side issue?

    Surely producers would love to just make one great thing and keep on churning it out.
    But consumers these days are placing such a high premium on individuality, albeit false individuality, that producers have to offer millions of choices so we all can keep up the appearance that we have uniqueness and individuality?

    You see this with things like cars and running shoes (probably more, but I am affected by these). A company makes a great car or running shoe, but needs to offer something different the next year so their product isn’t stale. Well my foot spent six months getting used to that shoe and because that yuppie runner needs a new style, I have to risk injury.

    I think most people (because theyre so utterly boring and drab) love these choices because they feel like they can differentiate themselves with a different shade of gray. It’s cheap enough to offer alternative and people seem to pony up.

  32. 32 32 Paul T

    SL: “A few months ago, I sat in a Dutailier glider and
    discovered that I had lived half a century with no concept of how
    comfortable a chair can be… So we’d like to buy a couple of
    those chairs. Unfortunately, Dutailier no longer makes the
    model we sat in”

    Who knows, maybe it’s karmic, a message from above –

    The Lord works in mysterious ways, His wonders to perform -

  33. 33 33 Mike H

    Comment 7 wins the thread, IMHO.

  34. 34 34 Bob Lince

    Not only does “Comment 7 wins the thread, IMHO[,]” but Mr. EricK need not come to class for the rest of the school year. He gets A+’s for both semesters on the strength of that one sentence.

    FWIW, I totally agree with Prof. Landsburg and DoctorMemory on this issue. I, too, still have only CRT TV’s, and zero digital point-&-shoot cameras, for the exact same reasons as DoctorMemory. We must live in different towns.

  35. 35 35 Henri Hein

    Unlike Steve and Bob, I fail to see the issue.

    In a perfect world, given how many people interact and how different we are, I would expect some people to prefer a variety of choices and some people to prefer the one-size-fits-all approach. I would expect this across a range of products. Even if you think toothpaste is a stretch for such a variety, high-end cameras and armchairs, certainly.

    I would expect some manufacturers to cater to the former group and some to cater to the latter group. I would expect some of both kinds of manufacturers to overshoot. I would expect some particularly geekish manufacturers to overshoot with relish.

    I would expect that someone would try to compensate for this overshooting and to bridge the categories — stores, magazines, consultants, etc, providing selection insight.

    Hmm, sounds pretty close to what we have.

    Aside: I cannot imagine camera users who consider their iPhone a reasonable substitute to be a prime target for Canon — but then, I am an expert neither on consumer markets or cameras.

  36. 36 36 TravisA

    I’m looking for a good chair. What was the model they discontinued that you liked so much? Do you have a showroom in your area that sells the Dutalier brand?

  37. 37 37 Ken B

    There is another possibility: there aren’t enough Dutailier chairs. The company went to the trouble of producing, for a while, a chair to fit the Landsburg frame perfectly. They were unable to keep the line going on that model forever, only a limited number of models can be made at one time (hence not enough) and Steve merely neglected to check the showroom early and often.

  38. 38 38 Ken Arromdee

    “When you walk in to buy a 32-inch TV, the guy in the blue shirt shouldn’t make you choose between a dozen nearly identical models. Instead, he should show you a single set, a TV that Best Buy’s experts have determined offers the best features at the best price.”

    Aside from the question of different people having different tradeoffs, even if it was possible to do this it’s not in Best Buy’s best interest to do so. It’s in their best interest to sell you the TV that makes them the most profit. Selling you a TV with an extra feature brings them more profit even if the cost is not worth it to you (although in the long run it might give them a reputation for mendacity).

  39. 39 39 Ken Arromdee

    Either the chair you liked is significantly more comfortable than the other 139, or it is not.

    If it *is* more comfortable, then perhaps the only reason you found it is that they made 140 models! Because, if they only made 10, then the odds would be 13:1 against you being able to get the model that you love so much. …

    If it is NOT more comfortable, then maybe all 140 are roughly equal.

    This doesn’t necessarily follow. Suppose that he doesn’t think all the models are equal, but he doesn’t think they are all different either; for instance, perhaps he thinks 14 of the models are high quality and roughly equal, while the others are inferior. If so, if there were only 10 models, there’s a good chance he’d still be able to find one of highest quality by his standards, yet all 140 are not equal.

  40. 40 40 ToddM

    For consumer electronics I’ve been led to believe a plethora of models goes along with retailer low price guarantees. Best Buy, say, guarantees the lowest price on the CXZ-1217a, so you go look to see if Fry’s has it for less, but they only sell the CXZ-1217b.

    The anomaly is Internet sites that give access to all the models, when the marketing model was based on physical store retail. You were never supposed to be exposed to all of them at once. Maybe?

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