Boots accelerates its digital accessibility journey

Boots is working with website accessibility software provider Recite Me to make its website more user-friendly and improve the customer experience

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: Computer Weekly: A prescription for digital accessibility at Boots

“Boots is there for everyone, no matter who you are, so it makes total sense to lead the way in doing this,” says Boots’ e-commerce director, Paula Bobbett.

She is talking about the launch of a tool on Boots.com that enables shoppers to customise the site to match their personal needs.

It’s an accessibility feature, meaning neurodivergent individuals can tailor the shopping experience in a way that suits them. It also allows users to change the language, reflecting the multinational diversity in UK society.

“It helps with visual impairment and it has multiple reading aids,” says Bobbett. “We did some testing prior to launch with our disability business resource group and had great feedback from people with dyslexia – changing the font size and background really made a difference to them.”

Millions of people in the UK experience barriers when shopping online. Bobbett says this latest tech investment will simply allow more of Boots’ audience to “browse, shop and manage their accounts hassle-free.”

Investing in the customer experience

This new capability on the Boots site is the result of a partnership between the retailer and website accessibility software provider Recite Me. The supplier’s toolbar appears on the Boots homepage, complete with reading aids, text-to-speech functionality and translation into over 100 languages.

It comes amid a diversity and inclusion awakening in retail, with many major retailers launching customer-facing initiatives and internal training programmes to better serve more of their consumer base.

As Computer Weekly reported at the start of 2022, a new online marketplace – EnableAll – is to launch soon, built with an “accessibility-first” mantra and a preference centre that allows web users to set the site to function in line with their specific needs.

EnableAll’s sister organisation, Purple, which helps raise awareness of accessibility issues in the business world, has supported Boots in its recent efforts in this space.

Commenting on Boots’ new website feature, Mike Adams, CEO of Purple and the brains behind EnableAll, said: “We believe their inclusive online shopping experience is a step change and can show other retailers how it can be done.”

However, Hilary Stephenson, managing director of Nexer Digital, an agency focused on accessible web design and development, argues that Boots could go further.

“Third-party plugins and accessibility tools can be helpful for specific use cases, and where people feel confident in using them to enhance their web experience, but we’d still argue for core accessibility to happen throughout the research, design and development processes, rather than using an additional tool,” she explains.

“We believe Boots’ inclusive online shopping experience is a step change and can show other retailers how it can be done”
Mike Adams, Purple and EnableAll

“Often, digital teams believe they have addressed all the accessibility needs of their audience by adding a tool such as Recite Me or AccessiBe, and the companies themselves can over-promise a little on compliance,” she adds. “This means the more nuanced requirements around access are overlooked – for example, someone with partial sight may not require a plug-in or screen reader, but will instead rely on Zoom and occasional voiceover.”

Stephenson says while Boots isn’t covered by the public sector web accessibility directive, one could argue the retailer is providing vital public health services and products, “so it would be admirable for them to elaborate on their commitment to accessibility” in a statement on the website.

“This would perhaps show that Recite Me is just one step to support specific users that’s part of a wider roadmap of changes they have planned,” she adds.

Early steps towards greater accessibility

Bobbett acknowledges this is “the start of a journey” in terms of improving web-based accessibility. The feature is currently available on the desktop and mobile site, and plans are in place to bring that to the mobile app.

With circa 37 million monthly visitors to its website, Bobbett believes Boots is well-positioned to gather additional consumer feedback on website usability needs that will drive continual improvements in accessibility.

“This is a trial because we will get feedback about what consumers want [to be done] differently and things that don’t work for them,” she says. “Because we are a big retailer working with Recite Me, we have the ability to help influence its roadmap. We can feed that in and evolve the experience together.”

Far-reaching digital transformation

Boots’ move to become more accessible online is part of a wider digital transformation at the retailer, and it also comes at a time when US owner Walgreens is looking to sell the company. Private equity firms are currently circling the business, eyeing up a deal expected to be in the region of $9bn.

In an interview with Computer Weekly last year, Boots CIO Richie Corbridge said 2022 would be a year the retailer’s online customers see the fruits of the business’s 2021 labours.

A replatformed Boots.com and the implementation of the Adobe suite are part of recent work by the IT and digital teams at Boots.

Corbridge is also leading the charge to get his IT team more professional recognition and, in a rare move for a retailer, Boots has partnered with BCS, the Chartered Institute for IT, to raise standards and the profile within the tech team.

Personalisation is a key goal across the Boots IT function, with the retailer keen to build more tailored relationships with consumers at the various points of customer contact. Its work with Recite Me is clearly part of that strategy too.

Putting customer data to work

Bobbett says the circa 14.8 million Boots Advantage Card loyalty scheme members means access to shopper data is not a problem, adding that the retailer recently migrated across around 1.9 billion pieces of customer data as it restructure its tech stack.

But how to use that data for commercial and customer benefit is a key focus for Boots.

She says Boots is investing in the right data structures and capabilities to make sure it has “a 360-degree view of customers”, along with “the right permissions to use that info”. The retailer is building its in-house data science team to interpret the information, and it has also made a significant investment in Adobe’s marketing technology.

“The app is at the heart of the strategy, both digital and omnichannel. The ambition is for it to be the one place people interact with us,” Bobbett notes. “It’s the digital front door, but we want to build out personalised offers on there – we do that already, but we’ll do more of it and tailor it to customer preferences. We’re in a position to do that because we have so much information.”

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