Bursting the Bubble on August Retail Sales

BTN-9-16-14Last Friday the Department of Commerce released its August retail sales figures. Total sales rose 5% compared to August of 2013.

The business and economic media heralded the news and what it might mean for retail sales performance over the next several months. The New York Times decided that the 70% of GDP growth dependent on consumer spending would be buoyed by this clear message that consumers are fed up with being cautious and poised to open their collective wallet in a big way.

A look behind the numbers tells a slightly different story, however.

Auto sales were responsible for most of the gain. Sales at automobile dealers and parts stores grew by almost 9% to $90 billion, representing over 20% of total retail sales. Retailers of health and personal care products enjoyed an 8% increase, but represent less than 6% of all retail sales. Sales at non-store, or pure-play e-commerce, retailers grew by 7%.

Department stores, apparel specialty stores, off-pricers and other purveyors of non-auto and discretionary goods, however, posted sales growth that underperformed the average. Apparel specialty stores got only a 3.2% pop from back-to-school. Food and beverage store sales rose by 3.6% compared to last year, boosted by rising prices in some key product categories. General merchandise store sales were up by less than 2%, depressed by a 1% drop in department, chain and specialty stores.

In other words, once folks have finished replacing their worn out pre-recession cars, retail sales could be facing a tough period.

Retail Doldrums

Over the past several weeks, publicly-held retail companies have been publishing their second quarter and first half sales and earnings performance results. Total sales of the top 35 companies in the department, discount, apparel specialty and off-price sectors were up by only 1% for the quarter and the half compared to the corresponding period in 2013. Market growth is not even keeping up with inflation. In real terms, it is in decline. The sales data indicate that off-pricers and apparel specialty store sales took share from department stores in the first half of the year, mostly by opening new stores.

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Comps were flat for both periods. Comps at specialty stores fell by almost 2% in the six-month period, due largely to big drops at teen specialty stores, while those at department stores were flat.

There were a few standouts in the crowd. Cato Stores, Chico’s, Dress Barn parent Ascena Retail, Limited Brands, off-pricers TJX and Ross, Nordstrom, JCPenney, Urban Outfitters and board sports inspired teen retailer Zumiez were among those reporting nice total sales increases, positive comps, or both.
But there were far more losers. The teen retailers suffered an almost 4% drop in total sales in the second quarter and the first half. Specialty stores dELia*s, Aeropostale and Wet Seal and department stores Stage and Sears Holdings suffered low-double-digit sales declines. Almost all of them had serious drops in comps as well. Overall gross margin deteriorated by 50 basis points. Total net income fell by a whopping 11%.

Predictions?

I’ve pored through the transcripts of at least two dozen quarterly earnings conference calls, looking for some indication that better days were expected in the third and fourth quarters. Most of the retailers were cautiously optimistic at best.

I also spoke to several Wall Street analysts. Although some were bullish about the ability of particular companies to gain share at the expense of others, none would go so far as to say that the overall market is growing more than a percent or so.

So, although I would love to believe that consumers are going to start spending more on clothes, shoes, jewelry, home furnishings, and other fun stuff, I think those predictions are a bit premature, if not flat-out wrong.

Which might explain why Wall Street met the retail sales news with a yawn, and markets closed down on Friday.

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As we enter the all-important holiday selling season, it’s important to keep in mind that an oversupplied market chasing apathetic demand is not a recipe for growth. This year, an over-hyped and über-promotional Thanksgiving and Cyber week will consume a large part of the holiday budget, after which things will quiet down a bit before the last weekend leading up to Thursday, December 25. Every indication is that the back half of the year will be just like the first, with flat sales and challenged margins and earnings.

Increased market share alone is what will separate the winners from the losers, and will require compelling product and an engaging store environment, both online and off. To achieve this, retailers will have had to invest in store expense, technology, and intensified customer engagement marketing. They will also, unfortunately, need to be willing to take it on the gross margin chin.

Supermarket Disrupters Rattle the Industry

Amazon Expands Grocery Delivery Service To Los Angeles AreaConventional supermarkets — those mid-tier retailing behemoths — are beset on all sides by disrupters. Some of those disrupters are cloaked in technology, some aren’t; others are self-inflicted and emerging from within.

Let’s take a look at what the disrupters are doing to the biggest retailing industry of all.

To begin: the greatest disruption traditional supermarkets have faced in the 60 years or so they’ve been feeding America came a generation ago when Walmart got into the grocery business. Walmart’s go-to-market strategy changed everything, particularly how product was acquired and distributed. For the longest time, even as the threat grew, Walmart was ignored by the supermarket industry, largely because Walmart wasn’t — and isn’t — much of a marketer and had difficulty at the time with presenting quality perishables and still does.

But none of that really mattered because Walmart swamped supermarkets with such a significantly better pricing offer that it soon became the country’s dominant grocer. [Read more...]

The Forecast: Share Wars For Rest of 2014

RL_Blog_9-10-14Forget about all of the holiday projections soon to be bandied about by the legions of economists, analysts, pundits, experts and faux experts. This is the one you can take to the bank, and it comes from none other than Macy’s CEO Terry Lundgren. Crisply, clearly and without hesitation, he nailed it at his presentation at the Goldman Sachs Annual Retail Conference.

“The rebound that we were all expecting in this year hasn’t happened. The consumer has not bounced back with the confidence that we were all looking for. And so the performance I think we had in the second quarter, and we expect to have in the second half, is going to be a continuation of what we’ve been able to do over the last several years — and that is to capture market share and get the most out of the consumers that are in our stores.”

In other words, folks, there will be no overall market growth this holiday season; only share wars in which the great retailers will steal share from the not-so-great, resulting in a zero-sum game. So, here you have it, The Robin Report official holiday projection: Zero Percent Growth. [Read more...]

Is Alibaba Really Worth It?

Alibaba Group Holdings Ltd. and Founder Jack Ma As Company Files for U.S. Initial Public Offering of E-Commerce GiantOn the verge of becoming the biggest initial public offering in US history, one has to wonder if it’s really worth the $187 billion some analysts are projecting. As we witness Jack Ma, former schoolteacher and founder of Alibaba, strut across a stage portraying himself as Jeff Bezos and Steve Jobs combined, at least he’s talking the talk. Walking the walk, as we all know, is a horse of a different color.

And to that point, off stage he’s been on a wandering and random acquisition binge, making some 30 investments since the beginning of the year, worth close to $7 billion. Whether or not he was just trying to find stuff to invest all of the cash gushing through the business, the deals he has made seem highly questionable. [Read more...]

Stalking the Cyberazzi

iStock_000027023380SmallDo you ever get the ominous feeling you’re being watched or followed? Well, you are!

They know what you’re doing and where you are at any given time; what you eat; the car you drive; ailments you have and whether you’re pregnant; divorced; trying to lose weight; cheating on your spouse at some sleazy motel; or the color of the upholstery in your Lear Jet.

They know every predilection, quirk and fetish you thought were buried deep in the recesses of your private life. You are fair game and their job is to create a dossier on you from cradle to grave.

Disturbing isn’t it? But this is the shadowy world of the data broker, companies that track every aspect of people’s lives and lifestyles. They are the keepers of a Pandora’s box of consumer data and it’s there for anyone to open—for a price! [Read more...]

Private Brand Primer: Five Things Not to Do When Launching a Signature Fragrance

Stocksy_txp33ce1e73JS7000_Small_35808Launching a signature fragrance is both exceptionally difficult and wonderfully exciting. It is also daunting and exhilarating. A fragrance launch is many things, but what it is not, is rocket science.

While both involve an attempt to blast off and to reach the stratosphere, the similarities end there. For example, typically no one’s life is at risk because of a fragrance launch. That being said, a promotion or even careers have been in the balance because of such a launch. Also, while there are many complex calculations that are part of a fragrance launch related to the formulations – the financial projections and logistics – none of this math even borders on aeronautical engineering or requires physics. Furthermore, a fragrance launch does not require you to deal with immutable laws of nature ­­– such as the laws of gravity or inertia.

However, having been responsible for putting numerous cologne and perfume products on the launching pad over the last several years, I have observed a few basic patterns and have acquired quite a bit of empirical data, albeit mostly anecdotal, about how to launch a signature fragrance. So here goes… [Read more...]

How Equinox Could Save Your Mall

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The Great Recession turned most US consumers into necessity-based shoppers, eliminating their need to spend a day or even an afternoon impulse shopping at the mall. But these changing demographics and shopping habits across the country have real estate developers getting creative – in some cases, by filling now-empty anchor stores with non-retail properties like fitness centers. Ironically, this emphasis on non-retail may be what woos consumers away from the convenience of online shopping and back to the mall.

Seventy-two percent of consumers say they prefer to buy separate apparel pieces at different stores, according to the Cotton Incorporated Lifestyle Monitor™ Survey, compared to the 28% who would prefer to purchase everything in one place.

“That number has really remained consistent over the last several years, indicating that the very nature of malls still holds strong appeal among consumers even as the traditional anchor store model has become outdated,” says Kim Kitchings, Vice President, Corporate Strategy & Program Metrics, Cotton Incorporated. [Read more...]

Luxury Retail: Turning Affluent Austerity into Retail Prosperity

lux_retailI got a call earlier this month from a freelance reporter who follows my beat – research on the affluent consumers and the luxury market. As she walked through the Time Warner Center on Columbus Circle on her way to the subway at midday, she found the halls and high-end boutiques unexpectedly empty. The only store seeming to do any business was Whole Foods. She wanted to know, “What’s up?”

I shared a similar experience visiting the Tysons Galleria, in McLean, Virginia, located in one of the nation’s highest-income counties. Walking through the mall on a weeknight, there was a remarkable lack of customers. The most active shop in the whole place that evening was the Starbucks café. [Read more...]

Disruption Dysfunction

iStock_000034006880LargeThe Harvard Business School may have a different answer, but here’s my definition of a Disrupter:

The guy who comes into your market and screws up your business by doing something different.

While Disruption, Disrupters and the entire Disrupt Movement have gone to the front pages of the business section the past 18 months, when you think about it, they have been constants in retailing since…well, since the first general store replaced the peddler’s cart. After all, didn’t the first generation of department stores – John Wanamaker and others – disrupt the retail world of specialty stores? Half a century later, the first discount stores of New England disrupted the department store channel, forever changing their business models. Big box category killers, superstore national chains, even Apple stores: they all disrupted what had been going on before they showed up on the scene.

Which of course brings us to today and the disrupter du jour: the Internet, of course. Perhaps it truly is the mother of all disrupters, changing the rules the way none of its predecessors ever did. Certainly, it seems that way to those of us who have no life and are consumed with the ever-changing nature of the retailing business.

But there’s disruption and then there’s disruption, and nobody can quite come to a clear agreement on which is which.

Dyson DC33 Multi Floor Upright Vacuum CleanerA Chinese Fortune, Cookie

Take the recent coverage of Alibaba – the huge Chinese online business that seems to be a combination of Amazon, Google and a Monopoly game – when it announced it was going public. Two New York Times stories couldn’t quite decide if Alibaba and its czar Jack Ma were disrupters or not. Consider this description from one of the two stories that ran on the same page on the day of the big deal:

“He (Ma) has also proved to be a serial disrupter – an outsider with a knack for creating new markets by reimaging old industries like retailing and finance.”

Contrast that with this next story: “Alibaba’s IPO filing breaks with that well-worn theme. Instead of     promising to disrupt an existing market, the Chinese e-commerce giant wants do something more straightforward, but potentially far more lucrative.”

So, disrupter or not? If the Times can’t figure it out, what chance do us mere mortals have?

Disrupters Clean House

Maybe you read Luke Williams’ 2011 book, Disrupt, which no doubt helped create the entire disruption disruption. Williams provides a classic home products example of what disruption is all about: the Swiffer mop. The basic premise with a mop is that it uses water to clean. But sometimes too much water retards the cleaning process. So what happens if you come up with something that cleans but doesn’t use water at all?

Presto, the Swiffer.

Presto, disruption.

The home furnishings business – never a hotbed for cutting-edge anything – has nonetheless had its share of disrupters…barely. Consider the Dyson vacuum cleaner. When it came out in the American market a decade ago, the average selling price of a better vac was about a hundred bucks, maybe $125. Hoover was the best-selling brand and the headlight was probably the biggest advancement in technology of the previous 20 years. James Dyson came along with a machine with advanced (though not totally original) technology, a huge advertising budget and a $400 price tag. Eighteen months later the Dyson was the number one selling machine in the business by dollars and another year or two later, it was number one in units too.

The other vacuum suppliers were not only disrupted, they were sucked dry.

A more recent poster child following the same path is the Nest thermostat. Talk about a product that virtually nobody was paying any attention to! Enter some guys who used to work for Apple with the classic Steve Jobs approach: design a gorgeous product that addresses an underserved category and, oh by the way, charge a lot of money for it. How much did Nest disrupt the home thermostat business? About three billion ways, which is how many dollars Google paid for the company this past January.

Does Domino Know?

Home disruption is also occurring on the retail side. Take a look at Domino magazine. Once the darling of the Gen X set for its irreverent takes on decorating, the publication was a Great Recession victim when owner Conde Nast shut it down in 2009 after just three years. An online version was maintained and there were some one-shots of repackaged content but it wasn’t the same. Late last year Domino Redux debuted, once again under the leadership of its original publisher Beth Brenner, now reinventing herself as chief revenue officer. As an online-only product that planned a print companion down the road, it set out to chase the holy grail of media convergence: read about products and decorating items and then buy those very same things right through the magazine. The old Domino sent you to someone to buy what it featured on its pages. Domino the sequel is cutting out the middleman.

Is it working? It’s too early to tell. But in a world where the line between journalism and commerce is increasingly not just fuzzy but often erased, Domino is certainly out to disrupt the way things have been done in both fields.

Then there’s Crane & Canopy. Started by husband and wife Harvard Business School classmates, this disrupter is trying to turn the business of buying bedding upside down. Right now most of the things you buy to put on your bed – sheets, pillowcases, comforters, duvets, what-have-you, are made by Asian suppliers, most often in China. American importers bring the product in and sell it to retailers. It’s the way it works, whether it’s Bloomingdale’s or Family Dollar…or Amazon.

Crane & Canopy is trying something different. Working directly with Chinese factories, it is designing its own products and then selling them directly to consumers online. Its products are not sold in any stores and are only available on the company’s own site. And by streamlining the sourcing model, it controls the process virtually from start to finish while shaving some costs out of the process. Again, this is another disruption in process. Whether Crane & Canopy can do the volume necessary to sustain its model is the 64-Yuan question.

As with any good disruption, the reaction of those being disrupted is mixed. In the case of Dyson, Hoover, Eureka and all the rest of the established vacuum cleaner market, it is still struggling to catch up. They were clearly caught with their dust busters down and Dyson continues to set the pace.

Nest has certainly shaken up its temperature-controlled market segment, as evidenced by a new Honeywell thermostat now coming to market that is voice activated. But you have to doubt that Google’s checkbook is out for that item.

And neither the new Domino nor Crane & Canopy have anywhere near the scale to make House Beautiful or Bed Bath & Beyond feel threatened. At least, not yet. But I guess that’s the way disruption works. You don’t realize until it’s too late that someone has come in and screwed up your business.

Warren Shoulberg is editorial director for several Progressive Business Media publications in the home furnishings field and could currently stand a little less disruption in his life, thank-you.

Apple Addicts Still Mainline Steve Jobs

X Japan Wax Figure UnveilingExcerpted from the New, New Rules of Retail
By Robin Lewis and Michael Dart

On January 9, 2007, on a big stage at the Macworld convention at the Moscone Center in San Francisco, Steve Jobs unveiled the first iPhone. With the already unprecedented cult following of Apple—and for that matter, of Jobs himself—this would be the first of many launches that would further fuel one of the most powerful brand-consumer connections ever.

This unveiling, of course, was merely the warm-up. Steve Jobs’ grandly staged presentation would trigger an intense anticipation among Apple “addicts” that would be satisfied only by the actual sales release of the iPhone itself.

This would happen at 6:00 PM local time on June 29, 2007, as the doors opened at Apple Stores nationwide to welcome hundreds of cult followers anticipating their fix, so to speak. Some media sources at the time were dubbing the iPhone the “Jesus phone.” In fact, in New York City the line started forming twelve hours before Apple’s flagship store opened and ended up winding around two city blocks, or roughly a quarter mile, with more than a thousand avid cultists in it. Some had even camped out overnight. Obviously the Apple addicts had learned that if they wanted the new phone, they had better be present when that door opened, or be forced to wait for weeks.

Apple’s connection with its consumers has gone way beyond the simply emotional. It has succeeded by actually connecting with their minds. In our updated second edition of The New Rules of Retail, released on August 12, 2014, we called this neurological connectivity. [Read more...]

Is Athletic Wear Poised to Usurp Denim?

CottonGirlsIn the US, the NPD Group reported US shoppers spent about $17 billion on denim in 2013, and the global jeans market is projected to reach $56 billion by 2018, according to research firm Global Industry Analysts, Inc. But some in the industry see athletic apparel as the one to beat. While denim remained almost flat, declining just 1% for the 12 months ending December 2013, activewear soared 9%. And the total apparel market was only up 2% over the same period. What’s happening here?

While some point to athletic apparel’s ubiquity – 92% of consumers wear it for activities other than exercise, up significantly from 87% in 2009, according to the Cotton Incorporated 2014 Sports Apparel Survey – a more complicated answer might lie in the fact that for denim shoppers, what’s being sold at retail isn’t living up to their standards.

“I think part of what’s challenging to denim brands right now is the ‘premiumization’ of yoga pants and the luxury ath-leisure sector essentially following denim’s own model for success,” says Shanna McKinnon, editor of DenimHunt.com. “But can yoga pants, even nice ones, really be as versatile as denim? I’m not so sure.”

For consumers, durability remains a key component of new clothing purchases. Yet data from the Cotton Incorporated Lifestyle Monitor™ Survey has established many consumers are not happy with the denim they are getting at retail.

Indeed, the majority of consumers say they have experienced fading (67%) and wrinkling (51%) in their jeans, followed by wear & tear issues (50%), shrinking (49%), and lack of stretch recovery (49%), according to Monitor data. [Read more...]

The Hidden Message in How Americans Spend

Consumer spending increased by 3.7% in June, the highest 12-month smoothed monthly increase in almost two years, according to data released last week by the Bureau of Economic Analysis.

This year, Americans will spend $12 trillion on stuff, slightly more than the $11.7 trillion they spent on stuff last year.

These gross numbers are pretty meaningless and hard to wrap one’s mind around, but if we look behind the big numbers at what we’re spending our money on, and how some of those expenditures are growing, it’s not only pretty interesting, but can also tell us about how optimistic we’re feeling, about our consumer preferences as a society, and where we might be headed.

When the government tracks consumer spending, it creates two major categories: goods, which are separated into durables like cars and washing machines, and nondurables like clothes and food; and services, such as private school tuition, cab fare, eating in restaurants, and going to the doctor.

What I’d like to do here, though, is to categorize them a little differently.

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Abraham Maslow (remember him from Psychology 101?) created the theory of the hierarchy of needs; simply stated that self-actualization is not possible until our basic needs are met. So, using a pyramid as a model, shelter, food and clothing (physiological needs) are the most basic needs at the base.

Fast forward to the top, creativity and artistic pursuits, are defined as self-actualization, or achieving our full potential as human beings. I’m super-simplifying here, but you get the idea. So if we look at trends in consumer spending through a redefined prism of Maslow’s hierarchy, and taking a few liberties with the climb to the top, some interesting patterns emerge. We can start with non-discretionary (need) categories like food, clothing and shelter at the base, and discretionary purchases, (more wants than needs) like restaurant dinners and new cars at the top.

So how have Americans been spending their money? And what’s behind these spending trends?

 

Level 1: Food, Clothing, Shelter (Basic Needs)

For one thing, it looks like the American Dream is alive and well, and home is still where the heart is – at least the heart of non-discretionary spending. As the chart below illustrates, spending on housing, which totaled an annualized $2 trillion as of June 2014 data, has been growing much faster than groceries and apparel, the other two key need categories, whose totals were $900 billion and $367 billion, respectively. Much of this increase has been due to tightened supplies of rental properties and energy costs, which have driven up monthly housing and utility costs, causing people to dedicate a larger share of their wallet to housing costs. Despite rock-bottom interest rates, home purchases have been about as spotty as job market recovery, resulting in an increased demand for homes to rent.

Although food prices have risen for certain categories, like meat and dairy, large supermarket chains are in a tough race for market share, which has kept inflation to a minimum and allowed consumers to take advantage of loss-leader bargains. In both apparel and groceries, showrooming has enabled price transparency across competitive retailers. As the chart shows, although spending on housing rose by 4% last month, slightly ahead of the total spending increase of 3.7%, spending on groceries rose by less than 2% and apparel spending edged up by less than 1%. In other words, Americans are spending more on housing because they have to, and taking advantage of the promotional environment in apparel and food to because they can.

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Level 2: Health and Wellbeing (Safety)

Next, let’s look at how we are spending on keeping ourselves healthy, the next level up on our redefined hierarchy of needs spending pyramid. Consumption of pharmaceuticals has skyrocketed in recent months as millions of formerly uninsured people got coverage under the Affordable Care Act and began to take medications for chronic illness and other conditions, causing windfalls for Big Pharma companies and the major drug store chains. However, spending on medical services and other forms of healthcare has grown by just over 3% as hospitals, clinics and physicians find their ability to bill patients is extremely limited under the new health care legislation. More people are going to doctors, according to CMS, the service that administers Medicare, but total spending is being offset by the declining average cost of a doctor treatment or visit. Maybe the Affordable Care Act is actually keeping health care affordable? Time will tell.

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Level 3: Quality of Life Connections (Belonging)

Next, let’s take a look at some spending categories up a little higher on the hierarchy of values: feel-good “big ticket” items. The auto industry has benefitted greatly in the past year by the unleashing of pent-up demand. During the recession, car sales declined because people decided they would just make do with their old clunkers. Once the economy started to grow again and employment and income started to recover, millions went out en masse and purchased new cars. However, that growth started to slow considerably early last year, as shown by the chart below, and then picked up again starting in February of this year. Although new car sales are strong, at an annualized $98 billion in June, they’re not growing as much as they were in early 2013, though part of that is due to tougher comparisons— that is, they’re being compared to stronger months than they were in early 2013.

Another interesting category in this realm is communication ($276 billion), which includes mobile device (smart phone) contracts, where growth is an annualized 4%, but off from the higher levels seen last year, primarily because the tablet craze has quieted considerably.

And growth in furniture and appliance spending, representing a total of $287 billion, remains sluggish despite the improved stability in the housing market. The lack of consumer interest in the category has been a source of tremendous frustration for retailers in this space. Perhaps a good bit of the softness in spending is due to the extremely competitive and promotional marketplace – prices have been declining for these products, and consumers are taking advantage of the available deals to spend less.

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Level 4: Having Fun (Esteem)

We’re approaching the top of the spending pyramid, where some of the most discretionary of the major consumer purchase categories reside, specifically entertainment. Key categories include recreational activities spending, at $450 billion, products like toys and sporting goods, at $367 billion, and spending on food outside the home, at $746 billion. Of the three, eating out is the only one with accelerating growth. In the hierarchy of needs, it reflects confidence and achievement that consumers have choice to reward themselves with a slightly more expensive option than cooking at home. And the fact that we’re spending moderately on recreation says that we’re having some fun.

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Level 5: Self-Improvement (Self Actualization)

At the pinnacle of all these spending categories are the self-actualized pursuits of spending on education and financial planning. Amazingly, it looks like these areas are growing at above-average rates; we’re actually spending more to improve our ability to succeed in the future. Education spending, at $282 billion, is one of the fastest growing categories in consumer spending (after pharmaceuticals). And not all that surprisingly, given the volatility of the financial markets, spending on financial services is growing quickly as well, at an annualized $890 million according to June 2014 figures. This data would suggest that we are optimistic about the future, interested in self-improvement and searching for, and funding, solutions.

Despite what is happening in the economy or in Washington, people are living their lives and hanging on to their dreams.

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