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What Strong Holiday Retail Means For US Economy


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. From Black Friday through Cyber Monday, the frenzy never let up. Black Friday sales surged to their highest levels since 2007. Early results from yesterday's online sales show a jump of at least 15 percent over last year.

And after a big dip over the summer, consumer confidence ticked back up. Good news, yes, and a bit of a surprise, too. Most economic prompts - most economic news prompts cautious optimism at best and gloom and doom at worst. Unemployment remains stubbornly high. The housing market continues to stumble. So what happened?

Retailers, how did the holiday weekend go for you? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, from "Die Hard" to Hogwart's to Broadway, actor Alan Rickman will join us. But first, retail. And we begin - well, let's begin with a caller. Jonathan's(ph) on the line, Jonathan calling us from Tulsa.

JONATHAN: Yeah, hey, Neal. I work in a clothing retailer here in our local mall. And I was - I went in at midnight. We actually opened then. And I was surprised to see anybody outside of our store because, I mean, it's not as major as some others. We had 15 or 20 people already lined up at midnight.

And by the time JC Penney, which is next door, opened up at four, I mean, you just saw a drove of 150 people rush in.

CONAN: I take it that took you by surprise?

JONATHAN: Absolutely. And we did our average day in an hour.

CONAN: That's amazing.

JONATHAN: It was - yeah.

CONAN: And was everybody in the mall open early, or...?

JONATHAN: Not quite everybody, but most stores seemed to open a few hours later, if not at midnight, so pretty crateful, full lot.

CONAN: And has it kept up?

JONATHAN: Yeah, I went back on Saturday and Sunday just this past weekend, obviously, and it was - the parking lot was full. I mean it was full all day.

CONAN: Well, let's hope it keeps up. Jonathan, thanks very much for the call.


CONAN: NPR senior business editor Marilyn Geewax is back with us again here in Studio 3A. Marilyn, nice to have you with us.


CONAN: And Jonathan's experience, well, that seems to be going on all over the place.

GEEWAX: It's the story we keep hearing again and again, that there were long lines. Every measure that I can find of retail sales was pretty darn good. The National Retail Federation said sales were up about 9 percent for the long weekend, from Thanksgiving through Sunday. And that means about two out of three of us did some kind of shopping and spent about $52 billion.

And then of course there was yesterday, Cyber Monday. That's the day where online retailers really push to try to get you in. And there was a lot of shopping that happened there, too, something like a 20 percent jump, some think. We don't have official data yet, it isn't all tallied. But every early indication is that people spent about $1.2 billion online. And that's about 20 percent more than the previous year.

CONAN: And everybody was expecting a pretty blah Christmas. What happened?

GEEWAX: Yeah, you know, it's hard to say exactly what's going on because again, all of this is just sort of happening right now. But one thing we know is that consumers have whittled down some of that debt that they were carrying.

Now sometimes that was an ugly way of whittling it down: You filed for bankruptcy and, you know, wiped out your debt. Or you...

CONAN: And your credit rating at the same time.

GEEWAX: And all gone, yeah. And then of course foreclosures, as well. So some of the debt has been wiped out just from really bad circumstances. But it's also true that people over the last couple of years have been more conservative and whittled down their personal debt. So now they have a little bit more breathing room, and there's a certain amount of - things wear out.

I mean, maybe you haven't really had a good Christmas since 2007, and you actually are due to get the kids a new computer. So, you know, you need to actually replace some things, and maybe that's what we're seeing.

CONAN: So maybe pent-up demand all these years of - after scrimping. Well, it's let go spend a little bit.

GEEWAX: Splurge a little bit. But there's also another way of looking at it, which is that maybe everybody's still broke and still worried, and they're just trying to get those early bargains. We've had a lot of coupons out there, free shipping for the online sales. There are things - I mean, certainly the retailers have done everything possible to get us excited about those doorbuster sales.

So what everyone needs to see now is was this an initial burst that's going to go away and fade over the next couple of days, or will this sustain and really be a pretty good Christmas?

CONAN: And, well, there's no way to anticipate that, we'll have to wait and see. But do we know what people were spending that money on?

GEEWAX: People are in love with electronics these days. It's going to always be a...

CONAN: All buying radios, no doubt.

GEEWAX: Right, I think so, yes. Well, there's also - besides all those radios, they're stocking up on their - actually they're listening to radio through their handheld devices. We've got smartphones and tablets, the electronic readers, video games are very big. But also there are things that are selling like vacuum cleaners and other things that are just sort of needed; shoes, clothes.

So that's where I say maybe this is people trying to take advantage of big bargains and big coupons and grabbing it up as quickly as possible early in the season to make sure that they can lock it down. We'll see what happens over time.

CONAN: My mother could get away with giving me clothes for Christmas. But if I find a vacuum cleaner under the tree, I'm going to be a little bit irritated. We want to hear from retailers, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. How did the weekend go for you? Sara's(ph) on the line calling from Portland.

SARA: Oh, hello, I just walked into my store. Well, I'm an independent retailer in Portland, Oregon, and we - our experience was that we didn't see some crazy, huge jump. We had a really successful Black Friday based on our own standards for our business, but we can't afford to give these doorbuster deals and give away all our margins. We're too small for that.

And, you know, we experienced a lovely, lovely day with people strolling in; no madness, no craziness, really, you know, pretty good sales. We have a very strong online presence to our business, as well. And we had a pretty quiet Cyber Monday because we can't afford to slash our prices.

CONAN: And I wonder, there was also a promotion this year for Small Business Saturday. Were you part of that?

SARA: Sure, yeah. Funny enough, Small Business Saturday was not what we had expected, mostly because it was the Oregon Civil War Game that day.


SARA: So it was pretty quiet compared to what we had expected, but it was a decent day. But I do want to emphasize that as people are rushing and rushing for these deals, I want to emphasize it's the small businesses that are the real engines of the economy, and they're the ones that are cycling the money back into the businesses. And just really excited about all the small businesses getting together and working together instead of looking at each other as competition.

CONAN: Well, Sara, good luck this season.

SARA: Hey, thank you.

CONAN: And Marilyn Geewax, it's interesting what she said about not being able to cut those - the margins.

GEEWAX: That's exactly the problem. You know, just to switch to sort of the downside of what we saw this weekend - yes, there were - good sales people rushed in, but all those doorbuster sales, you know, what are they really going to do to the margins? Are there going to be profits at the end of the year?

If the only way to get people into the store or onto your website is to offer free shipping, big discounts; it's so competitive because people do have those handheld devices now where they can quickly comparison-shop, the price pressures are so intense that it's not exactly great for people who want to be a retail worker.

Maybe the store owner is going to really try extra hard to hold down labor costs. They're not going to want to be generous with wages. If you were a manufacturer who's providing goods for the stores to sell, you're going to under intense pressure to keep your prices down.

So, you know, this intense discounting, yes, it helps the consumer in the short run, but in terms of wages and the profit margins for retailers, it's still kind of a question what's really going on out there.

CONAN: So are they doing this as loss leader, to build loyalty?

GEEWAX: Well, you know, it's such an intensely competitive environment out there that if you don't cut those prices, people won't be in your store, and what you have to hope for is that if you offer a $199 plasma screen TV, that while people are in the store, they'll also pick up a little of this, a little of that; buy some batteries that you might have a big profit margin on or whatever.

You want them in your store. So you've got to offer those doorbusters, but this ability that we have now to quickly price-compare, you can just look at what they've got in the one store and quickly go online with your smartphone and check what the other store has, and it really drives down prices.

I think that for workers in the retail sector who hoped for raises or for a few more positions in their store, it's very tough.

CONAN: Let's go next to Chris(ph), Chris on the line with us from Bedford, Michigan.

CHRIS: Hi, Neal, how are you?

CONAN: Good, thanks.

CHRIS: Good. I am a manager at a local retail establishment in our mall, and we had a large sale for Black Friday, and we actually missed our numbers for that day. We beat last year, but we weren't quite at our goal. So we had to extend the sale throughout the entire weekend.

And we did make up our numbers, but we are kind of worried that we're going to miss through the rest of the year. So we are looking at extending other sales and things like that throughout the year. So I heard across the board that we had good numbers, but in our store in our local area, we had a little bit of trouble with that.

CONAN: Any speculation as to why?

CHRIS: We're actually based out of Toledo. So there could be - it's a big shopping, sale region. People don't like to buy things that aren't on sale. And then also we've had a pretty heavily hit economy. So that could be part of it. I also think that our particular - we're an outdoor retailer, and it's not particularly wild in Toledo, but it seems that we had a really good day, or good week and weekend, but I think that these numbers might not hold up as we head into the month a little bit more.

CONAN: Chris, thanks very much. We wish you the best of luck.

CHRIS: Thank you very much.

CONAN: And that call, and the earlier call saying, well, maybe we didn't have such great sales because of the football game, local, local, local. They could be...

GEEWAX: Weather can - you can always have a blizzard that wipes out a weekend and makes it tough for retailers to get into the stores. But there's one other thing that's happening this year that's just a quirk of the calendar: Christmas happens to fall on a Sunday. And typically, the Saturday before Christmas is a really strong sales day.

So when Saturday falls on Christmas Eve, retailers are particularly happy because there are lots of last-minute shoppers, and they're off of work. They have the day when they can go out to the mall. So one thing, though, that - it's kind of good for the retailers because you can get those last-minute shoppers.

On the other hand, for all you procrastinators out there who want to wait until Christmas Eve, maybe it will tend to get people to wait longer, wait for that last-minute sale and see if there's some doorbuster sales on Christmas Eve.

CONAN: Marilyn Geewax, NPR's senior business editor, she's with us here in Studio 3A. Black Friday and Cyber Monday came and went. Retailers report business was booming. We're talking about what that might tell us about the economy, whether it can last.

Retailers, how did the holiday weekend go for you? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. Holiday shoppers so far appear surprisingly willing to splurge in stores and online. Discounts and others specials and free shipping can help. Many analysts, though, warn that a boom on Black Friday does not necessarily predict an equally strong holiday shopping season. The numbers may not prove quite as strong as what we saw this past weekend.

But many retailers, at least, expect to see a better year than they did in 2010. That's a pretty low bar, though. Retailers, how did the holiday weekend go for you? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guest is NPR senior business editor Marilyn Geewax. One of the ways people are financing that holiday shopping is with credit cards. There's been a small uptick in credit card debt. Some stores also brought back layaway programs to help separate shoppers from their money.

Michelle Singletary is a nationally syndicated personal finance columnist with the Washington Post and joins us from a studio at the newspaper. Nice to have you back with us today.

MICHELLE SINGLETARY: Oh, it's my pleasure always.

CONAN: Even with 30 percent off and no interest, you have to pay that bill eventually.

SINGLETARY: Eventually. It's really - you know, I was listening to the report, and I'm glad people are feeling a little more free to shop, but I worry that people have been pent up for so long that they will overspend, especially on credit, which is so dangerous when you're just coming out of the kind of recession that we just had.

CONAN: And the debt can mount up quickly, a lot more quickly than you can expect sometimes.

SINGLETARY: Absolutely. You know, the thing about it is when you use that plastic, and you're swiping, you're not giving a lot of thought, as opposed to when you have to, you know, peel off cash. You know, when you take cash, you - it's harder for you to separate from that money.

But that plastic, you know, study after study shows that, you know, when you use plastic, you spend more than if you take cash.

CONAN: And the layaway programs, boy, I thought that went the way of Mr. Machine quite some time ago.

GEEWAX: Yeah, or the Robo Rock-em...

CONAN: Sock-em Rock-em Robots, yeah.

SINGLETARY: Sock-em Rock-em Robot. You know, but the thing about layaway, it's better than credit, but it also can lead to people spending more because there's sort of this sense that I'm not really spending a whole lot because I'm putting it away early.

And then if you put away stuff too early, you might miss those last-minute sales. So you need to also be very careful with layaway and also the rules with layaway. Are you really going to have the money when the time comes to get that stuff out of layaway? If not, you could lose your deposit. So you need to be very careful with layaway.

CONAN: Are layaways typically - do they charge a fee to give you the privilege of laying it away?

SINGLETARY: You have to put down a deposit, and then you pay as you go. And if you don't get your items by the time that you - the store requirement, you can lose some of that deposit, if not all of it.

CONAN: But it's the same price, you know, it's the same $38.50 whether you pay it all at once or over time.

SINGLETARY: Exactly right. No, it's not like you're paying interest on any of the items, right.

CONAN: I guess they're getting to whatever - interest rates these days are pretty terrible, so they're getting some profit on that. But it's really a way of luring you into the store again and again and again.

SINGLETARY: Exactly. I mean, the idea is that if you - you know, you don't - you know, the stores are saying okay, we know you don't want to use credit. We know you want to shop. Come put some things on layaway, pay it over time so that you can get out, which for a lot of people, especially people who have had credit card issues, it's a good technique. Just be careful that you're still not overspending.

You know, I tell people, you know, you hear these tips that say make a list and then buy according to it. I say come up with the dollar amount that you feel comfortable with in cash. Then make your list. So that might mean that some people are going to drop from your list.


SINGLETARY: And then shop at your house, you know. I mean, you know, I shouldn't tell this, but, you know, we do things at my house to kind of cut the Christmas bill. And then manage your kids' expectations. Every year we tell our kids, okay, Tommy, what do you want for Christmas? Tell Santa. You know, they're still a little young, but the old one, I still make her play along.

And then I say - and then they always list something that's crazy, and I'm thinking - I tell them, well, Santa's not going to get you that. Let's just say that right now, you know.


SINGLETARY: And then on the spot, they revise their list. It's - you know, I do it in a humorous way. But you need to manage your kids' expectations, particularly for the many, many families out there who are still unemployed or just got a job and are trying to recover from all the losses they had.

Don't feel that pressure. You know, listen, when they get older, not now, but when they get older, they're not going to remember any of that stuff that you brought. They're going to remember you're present, not the presents. You need to keep that in mind.

CONAN: And wait a minute, you said you cut some corners at your house. Are you talking about re-gifting?

SINGLETARY: Well, you know I like re-gifting.


SINGLETARY: Absolutely. It's not shameful at all. If my kid's got something, or the older one's got something that she didn't like, yes indeed, I pass it on. Just don't give it to the person who gave it to you.


CONAN: Keep notes, make a list, check it twice. It's good advice at any time of the year. Michelle Singletary, thank you so much for the call(ph)...

SINGLETARY: You're so welcome.

CONAN: And I'm going to love that fruitcake we get from you every year.


SINGLETARY: It'll be new - to you.


CONAN: Michelle Singletary is the author of "The Power to Prosper," a nationally syndicated finance columnist, and she joined us today from a studio at the Washington Post. Let's get another caller on the line. This is Joe(ph), and Joe's with us from Lanoka Harbor in New Jersey.

JOE: Hi, how are you doing today?

CONAN: Good, thanks.

JOE: I'm a Web retailer. I own two online stores, (unintelligible) dotcom, and we had the single best day of sales we've ever had yesterday, and we've been in business for about eight, 10 years now.

CONAN: And was there - were there special discounts for Cyber Monday?

JOE: Yeah, well, we've made a discount for the whole weekend to - we felt like we kind of had to to compete with any other stores. You know, talking to my family and stuff over Thanksgiving, some of them weren't going to shop in any places that weren't going to give discounts. They were just only looking for discount places. So that's what we did, and it turned out really well for us.

CONAN: So do you think it's going to be able to sustain?

JOE: I hope so. You know, and this year we're not going to give a discount throughout the whole season. The last couple years we have. We felt like we kind of needed to just - because everyone was just looking for the sale. And at least what I'm hoping is that people will just shop with us for, you know, for the products we have at the prices we have and not just for a discount this year, hopefully.

CONAN: Marilyn?

GEEWAX: Neal, something that may change for online retailers is the sale tax issue. That's something that a lot of people - you know, the federal government is pretty starved for revenues right now, and one of the things that's happening is they're cutting back, of course, on funding for states.

So state and local governments are, in turn, looking for sources of revenue, and about $23 billion a year in sales taxes are not collected because of online companies. There was a Supreme Court ruling in the early 1990s that said a company that didn't have nexus, that is a physical presence, didn't have to collect sales taxes for a state where, you know...

So if I buy something from someone in Ohio, I don't have pay sales taxes on it when it arrives here in my home in Maryland. So that's a big advantage. You know, when I'm looking around, I sort of think: Well, gee, that's, you know, cut the shipping, cut the taxes, that's pretty attractive. But of course for the state and local governments, that's a real loss.

So there's a big push to try to make it so that people do have to collect those taxes and remit them to the states.

CONAN: Joe, what is the sales tax now in New Jersey?

JOE: It's seven percent here, but I can tell you, I don't think people mind paying the sales tax. Most customers expect it and are surprised when there's no tax.

CONAN: Okay. Well, thanks very much, and good holiday season for you.

JOE: Thank you. You too.

CONAN: Joining us now is Chris Christopher, senior economist with IHS Global Insight, where he follows retail sales and the consumer economy. He joins us from the IH studios in Lexington, Massachusetts. Nice to have you with us today on TALK OF THE NATION,

CHRIS CHRISTOPHER: Hi, it's a pleasure to be here.

CONAN: And I wonder: Is it time to break out the champagne, or should we keep it on ice just in case things go sour?

CHRISTOPHER: No, it's not time to break out the champagne, but maybe a cheaper type of bubbly is in order.


CONAN: So it is - were you surprised by the numbers over the past weekend?

CHRISTOPHER: We weren't surprised too much because FedEx actually released a statement a few months ago saying that on the cyber side, things were looking very good. On the international freight side, things weren't looking good. So we were ready for it.

However, consumer confidence, that increase today, in today's release, was a bit of a large increase and still at recessionary levels, but a pleasant surprise.

CONAN: Still at recessionary levels, and it's important to remember that there are other parts to the economy that still look pretty dismal. The home sales today, well, it looks like house prices are going down in most cities in the country – again - after a slight uptick over the weekend.

But as you look ahead to the retail, do you think it's going to be able to sustain through Christmas?

CHRISTOPHER: Maybe through Christmas. It's going to drop off a little. There's been a lot of early shoppers, and of course Black Friday and Cyber Monday look very good. So - and the dynamic in the retail space is very different than - it's changing year by year. So it should not be as strong for December or mid-December until Christmas.

However, going forward into the new year, there are a lot of headwinds that consumers face, and that won't be that strong.

CONAN: And Marilyn, I know that you've written some concerns about the new year as well, even as well as this past weekend has shaped up.

GEEWAX: Yes, I mean there's still so much out there. We have more than nine percent unemployment. That's terrible. This has gone on so long. People have been out of work for such a long period that it continues to weigh on the job market.

Even if you have a job, your wages probably haven't gone up very much. So there are real constraints on wages, and we've seen a lot of higher prices for food this year. But now, the one thing that has been good, is it's surprising what a big impact gasoline prices have on psychology. When gasoline was getting to be about $4 a gallon last spring, it was just a real weight on consumers.

Even though gasoline isn't, you know, a huge part of your budget, it's meaningful because you drive past that gas station every day, you see the sign that the prices are up, it weighs on your mind. And now, we've seen gasoline prices fall. Just the other day, I paid 3.16 for gasoline. I can't remember the last time I paid that little. That was, you know, it's still a lot. It's more than it was a year ago, but it's down so much from this past spring that I was surprised at how relatively low my gasoline bill was.

So I think that that can be helping support this sort of, you know, little bit of an up-tick in the consumer sentiment. But now, where do we go from here? Will oil prices continue to rise? Lately, it's not been looking so good. So it's hard to say how long this little burst of slight optimism may last.

CONAN: And, Chris Christopher, I wanted to ask you about what Marilyn was talking about earlier, that sense that retailers, with all of these discounts and free shipping and whatnot, they may be making a lot of sales but not a lot of profit.

CHRISTOPHER: That's exactly right. And whatever Marilyn said about consumer sentiment and consumer confidence and gas prices, we actually find that in our econometric statistical research. So - now, what is different this year on holiday sales compared to last year is that prices are higher. Wage gains are not keeping pace with inflation, price increases. And last year, holiday sales were very good. They were about 5.2 percent compared to the year, previously. This year, our forecasts are saying 4.2 percent, but about half of that gain is going to be due to higher prices.

So what the retailers are doing, they're discounting, especially on electronics. They're discounting quite a bit. However, most of the gain or a good portion of the gain is due to higher prices. And in order to make up for all this - on low margins, they have to make it up in volume so - and it's a turf war. They're fighting for market share, as Marilyn said previously.

CONAN: Here's a correction we got by email from Keith. There are nominal service charges for layaways, but they're usually pretty reasonable since the store is sacrificing valuable backroom space. The service charge range is roughly five to $25. T.J.Maxx, for instance, charges $5 for the layaway. And if you don't pick up, will charge an additional restock fee of $5. So thank you for that. We're talking about retail sales and the good news on that over the weekend. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's go next, to Maryanne. Maryanne, with us from Philadelphia.


CONAN: Hi, Maryanne.

MARYANNE: Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure. How was the weekend for you?


CONAN: Just...

MARYANNE: Not terrific.



MARYANNE: It was OK. I'm happy for any sale that we make these days in small business.

CONAN: What kind of small business are you in?

MARYANNE: I have a small store that sells vintage, antique and gift items.

CONAN: And just OK, so not spectacular?

MARYANNE: Well, it's OK. I don't know how long OK it's going to last, let's say.


CONAN: Well, we wish you the best of luck.

MARYANNE: When you have big-box stores that are starting Christmas sales mid-October and, you know, and you have Internet competition and you have vendors that also compete with you, we're up against a lot here on Main Street America.

CONAN: I think that's a familiar story, but somehow, you've survived so long. Are your rents going up too?

MARYANNE: Well, my landlord has been very kind and has frozen my rent, which she - he realizes, you know, how difficult it is, and I appreciate that. And - but you know what, who knows what the future is going to bring?

CONAN: Well...

MARYANNE: And a lot of stores are empty in Philadelphia, a lot of the retail streets, and I don't know that people are making connections. They want products that are made in the United States, but they don't want to pay for them. And they want unusual, different things, and we can't all be selling iPads and iPhones.

CONAN: Maryanne, good luck. Thanks very much for the call.


CONAN: Here's an email from Grace. As an online wholesale business, we sell inexpensive scratch-and-dent products via eBay and Amazon. We're too small to have offered any Cyber Monday discount sales, but we experienced a huge sales weekend, regardless. We have so many sales that have come in. Our one-person shipping staff has expanded to four people, and we're still three days behind. Perhaps, consumers this year, are less concerned with receiving a shiny and brand-new product and more concerned with quality for their dollar. In addition to shopping for prices, Chris Christopher, any indication that people are focusing on quality?

CHRISTOPHER: There is a basic dynamic, a bifurcation, if you will, in the retail space, where there's a lot of people due to higher poverty rates and more income inequality, that they are sort of going to the low end. And there are people who are going to the high end. You know, you hear these stories of luxury stores are doing well or relatively well. So there are still people looking for quality, but there are a lot of people, a tremendous amount of people, the majority of people, are looking for a good deal, and they're going to scrounge around until they find it.

CONAN: So Wal-Mart, Marilyn Geewax, is doing well and so is Tiffany's.

GEEWAX: Exactly. We've seen that splitting more and more in this recession since 2008, as he says, as Chris says, that, you know, there are - people will go to Wal-Mart and spend a lot or take care of all of their needs in one place, and they're not hitting all of the mall as much as they used to. So some of those specialty clothing stores or middle-class sort of oriented stores, like JCPenney, those are the ones that are - that have had a tough time. And the Tiffanys do well.

CONAN: And, Chris Christopher, given your advice to open the prosecco, if not the Veuve Clicquot, can we put you down in the cautiously optimistic column?

CHRISTOPHER: As always, I'm always cautiously optimistic.


CONAN: Chris Christopher, thanks very much for your time today.

CHRISTOPHER: It's a pleasure.

CONAN: Chris Christopher is senior economist with IHS Global Insight. He joined us today from their studio in Lexington, Massachusetts. Marilyn Geewax, NPR senior business editor, was here with us in the Studio 3A right here in Washington, D.C. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.