Accessibility in the retail industry

Accessibility – Important for Retail Brands to Prioritize

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In today’s retail landscape, customer experience is a key differentiator that can set brands apart. While many businesses focus on aspects such as convenience, personalization, and omnichannel experiences, one critical area that is often overlooked is accessibility.

Retail brands have a responsibility to ensure that their products and services are accessible to all customers, including those with visible and non-visible disabilities. Building accessibility into their customer experience strategy aligns with ethical and legal obligations and presents a significant business opportunity for brands. Retail Mashup explores accessibility in-depth in this article.

Despite the importance of accessibility, many retail brands fall short in this area. According to a report by the World Health Organization (WHO), approximately 15% of the world’s population lives with some form of disability.

However, a survey conducted by the Click-Away Pound research initiative found that 71% of disabled customers with access needs would leave a website that they found difficult to use, potentially leading to lost sales and a negative brand image.

Retail Insider summarized a key Canadian study on accessibility by the Retail Council of Canada back in 2022. In it, the top Canadian retail publication noted that:

  • 30% of Canadians consider accessibility when looking for a place to shop or do business. Source: Rick Hansen Foundation
  • 9.1 million people in Canada have a recognized disability. Source: The Global Economics of Disability
  • $82.2 billion is the cumulative annual disposable income among Canadians with disabilities Source: The Global Economics of Disability
2022 RCC Accessibility Guidebook
2022 RCC Accessibility Guidebook (Source: Retail Council of Canada)

There are many types of disabilities, which can be broadly categorized into the following categories:

  1. Physical Disabilities: These disabilities affect a person’s mobility or dexterity. Examples include paralysis, limb loss, and muscular dystrophy.
  2. Sensory Disabilities: These disabilities affect one or more of the senses. Examples include blindness, deafness, and sensory processing disorders.
  3. Cognitive Disabilities: These disabilities affect a person’s ability to think, learn, and process information. Examples include intellectual disabilities, learning disabilities, and memory disorders.
  4. Psychological Disabilities: These disabilities affect a person’s mental health and emotional well-being. Examples include depression, anxiety disorders, and schizophrenia.
  5. Neurological Disabilities: These disabilities affect the brain and nervous system. Examples include epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease, and multiple sclerosis.
  6. Developmental Disabilities: These disabilities affect a person’s physical or mental development. Examples include autism spectrum disorder, Down syndrome, and cerebral palsy.

It is important to note that disabilities can vary widely in their impact severity and visibility (see below). In addition, individuals with disabilities may have different needs and abilities. Providing inclusive and accessibility considerations can help ensure that people with disabilities can fully participate in the retail environment.

Visible disabilities are disabilities that are apparent or noticeable to others, often affecting a person’s physical appearance or mobility. Examples include:

  1. Mobility impairments: Such as difficulty walking or using stairs, often requiring the use of mobility aids like wheelchairs, crutches, or walkers.
  2. Visible physical disabilities: Such as limb differences, amputations, or disfigurements.
  3. Visual impairments: Including blindness or low vision that is visibly noticeable through the use of canes, guide dogs, or specialized eyewear.

Non-visible disabilities, on the other hand, are not immediately apparent to others. These disabilities may impact a person’s physical, mental, or cognitive abilities, but their effects are not visible to the naked eye. Examples include:

  1. Chronic illnesses: Such as diabetes, fibromyalgia, or chronic pain conditions.
  2. Mental health conditions: Such as depression, anxiety disorders, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
  3. Cognitive impairments: Such as learning disabilities, autism spectrum disorder (ASD), or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Both visible and non-visible disabilities can have significant impacts on individuals’ lives and may require accommodations or support to enable full participation in daily activities. Retailers need to be aware of and considerate of their customer base and the diverse needs of customers with disabilities, whether visible or non-visible, to ensure that their products, services, and environments are as accessible and inclusive as possible.

Accessibility goes beyond physical mobility. It encompasses a wide range of disabilities, including visual, auditory, cognitive, and neurological impairments. For example, visually impaired customers may rely on screen readers to navigate websites, while those with cognitive impairments may require simplified language and clear navigation paths. Retail brands must consider these diverse needs when designing their customer experience.

Several leading retail brands have set the standard for accessibility management. Walmart, for instance, has implemented various initiatives to improve accessibility, such as assisting customers with disabilities in-store and offering accessible shopping options online.

Similarly, Apple has incorporated features into its products, such as VoiceOver and Magnifier, to assist customers with disabilities in using their devices.

Apple has many accessibility features embedded in its MacOS, iOS, and beyond. (Source: YouTube)

Other retail brands that have included accessibility considerations include:
Toys “R” Us has included sensory-friendly shopping hours and sensory rooms in select stores. These sensory rooms provide a calming environment with sensory-friendly toys and activities for children with autism and other sensory processing disorders.

Another example is the Manchester Airport in the UK, which has a dedicated sensory room located in Terminal 1 called the “Sunflower Room” for passengers with hidden disabilities. The room provides a quiet and calming space away from the busy airport environment, equipped with sensory toys, soft lighting, and comfortable seating.

To assess their current level of accessibility, retail brands can conduct accessibility audits. These audits involve evaluating websites, mobile applications, and physical stores for compliance with accessibility standards such as the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). Additionally, brands can engage with customers and advocacy groups to gather feedback on their accessibility efforts.

In the EU, the leading regulator for accessibility is the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA), which works to promote and protect the rights of people with disabilities across the EU. Additionally, the Web Accessibility Directive, adopted in 2016, requires EU member states to ensure that public sector websites and mobile apps are accessible.

In Canada, accessibility regulations are governed by the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) in Ontario and the Accessible Canada Act at the federal level. These acts aim to make Ontario and Canada more accessible for people with disabilities by setting standards for accessibility in areas such as customer service, transportation, and information and communications.

In the US, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is the primary regulator for accessibility. The ADA prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life, including jobs, schools, transportation, and all public and private places that are open to the general public. This includes requirements for accessible design and accommodations in buildings, facilities, and digital platform

In Asia, accessibility regulations vary by country. For example, in Japan, the Act for Eliminating Discrimination against Persons with Disabilities sets out requirements for accessibility in areas such as transportation, public facilities, and information and communications. In China, the Regulations on the Accessibility of Urban Environment require that new public buildings and facilities be accessible to people with disabilities.

Accessibility is not something that can be incorporated in a week. Retail brands need to consider and assess their customer demographics, customer needs, and online/virtual/ physical presence in the entire customer journey before initiating a strategy to build or enhance their current process and procedures.

In general, brands should include some of the following concepts in their processes:

  1. Training and Awareness: Educate employees about accessibility and the importance of providing an inclusive customer experience.
  2. Accessible Design: Ensure that websites, mobile applications, and physical stores are designed with accessibility in mind, including features such as alt text for images, easy-to-read fonts, and clear signage.
  3. Assistive Technologies: Provide assistive technologies, such as screen readers and magnifiers, to help customers with disabilities access products and services.
  4. Collaboration: Partner with disability advocacy groups and organizations to gain insights into how to improve accessibility.
Accessibility consideration in web design is important for all brand online contact and communication (Source: fauxels at Pexels)

In addition, retail brands can manage specific needs better by categories the different visible and non-visible disabilities:

  1. Physical Disabilities: Retailers need to consider the accessibility of their physical spaces for customers with physical disabilities. This includes providing wheelchair-accessible entrances, aisles, and restrooms, as well as ensuring that shelves are at a height that is easily reachable for customers using wheelchairs or mobility aids.
  2. Sensory Disabilities: Retailers can make their stores more accessible to customers with sensory disabilities by minimizing noise and distractions, providing clear signage and wayfinding, and offering alternative formats for information, such as braille or large print.
  3. Cognitive Disabilities: Retailers can create a more inclusive shopping experience for customers with cognitive disabilities by providing clear and simple signage, logically organizing products, and training their staff to be patient and understanding.
  4. Psychological Disabilities: Retailers can support customers with psychological disabilities by creating a welcoming and non-judgmental environment, providing quiet spaces for those who may become overwhelmed, and training their staff to recognize and respond appropriately to signs of distress.
  5. Neurological Disabilities: Retailers can accommodate customers with neurological disabilities by providing clear and consistent communication, offering assistance with tasks that may be challenging, and ensuring that their physical spaces are safe and easy to navigate.
  6. Developmental Disabilities: Retailers can support customers with developmental disabilities by providing visual supports, such as pictures or symbols, to help them understand information, offering assistance with decision-making, and creating a calm and predictable shopping environment.

Measuring Accessibility

Measuring the effectiveness of accessibility efforts is crucial. Retail brands can use metrics such as customer satisfaction scores, website traffic from accessible devices, and feedback from customers with disabilities to gauge their progress. Additionally, brands can benchmark their accessibility performance against industry standards and best practices.

Other metrics retailers can consider in their quest to manage accessibility include:

  1. Increased Customer Satisfaction: By providing accessible products, services, and environments, brands can cater to a broader range of customers, including those with disabilities. This inclusivity can lead to increased customer satisfaction and loyalty, as customers feel valued and respected.
  2. Positive Brand Image: Brands that prioritize their accessible components are often viewed more favorably by customers, both with and without disabilities. This positive brand image can enhance customer trust and loyalty, leading to repeat business and positive word-of-mouth recommendations.
  3. Expanded Market Reach: By making their products and services accessible, brands can tap into a market segment that is often underserved. According to the World Health Organization, people with disabilities make up approximately 15% of the world’s population, representing a significant consumer base.
  4. Compliance with Regulations: Many countries have regulations in place that require businesses to ensure people with disabilities are catered for. By complying with these regulations, brands can avoid legal issues and negative publicity, while also demonstrating their commitment to social responsibility.
  5. Improved Online Presence: Features such as alt text for images, keyboard navigation, and screen reader compatibility can improve a brand’s search engine optimization (SEO) and make its website more user-friendly for all customers, not just those with disabilities.
  6. Enhanced Customer Engagement: Brands that prioritize accessibility often find that they are better able to engage with customers with disabilities, leading to valuable feedback and insights that can help improve products and services for all customers.
  7. Innovative Solutions: Drive innovation within a brand, leading to the development of new products, services, and features that benefit all customers, not just those with disabilities.

Building accessibility into their customer experience strategy is a legal and ethical obligation for retail brands but also a smart business decision. By ensuring that their products and services are accessible to all customers, including those with visible and non-visible disabilities, brands can enhance customer loyalty, improve brand reputation, and tap into a significant market segment. By assessing, enhancing, and measuring accessibility, retail brands can create a more inclusive and welcoming customer experience for everyone.

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Larry Leung
Larry Leung

Larry Leung is a customer experience strategist based in Toronto, Canada. He is a Principal and Chief Experience Officer at Transformidy, a consulting agency focusing on helping brands with their customer experience strategy. He has over 20 years experience working with brands like IBM, TD Bank Group, Manulife, CIBC, Cineplex, McCain, GTAA and more.

He also has a Canadian Leadership role at the Customer Experience Professional Association (CXPA). He is a frequent contributor to local and international publications and a speaker at various conferences.

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