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Disabled consumers left logged out of retail’s digital revolution

Retailers are being urged to make their digital assets more accessible to disabled consumers, not just for moral and social reasons, but because of the commercial opportunity

There have been some standout moves by UK retailers to cater for customers with disabilities in their stores this year.

Grocer Sainsbury’s renamed its Bath store “Signsbury’s” for four days in July, as part of an initiative to encourage people to learn and use sign language in the supermarket.

Home Bargains started 2019 by introducing a weekly “quiet hour” to provide a more welcoming environment for shoppers with autism across all its UK stores. Every Saturday from 9-10am, the general merchandise chain switches off music and is working with the National Autistic Society charity to continue its supportive approach.

Supermarket group Morrisons, shopping centre owner Intu and toy retailer The Entertainer are among other business embracing the quiet hour concept.

Such initiatives are increasingly important, with recent Accenture Strategy research showing that consumers are no longer making decisions based solely on product selection or price. They are now assessing what a brand says, does and stands for, with 37% of UK consumers opting not to buy from a company because of its words or actions on a social issue.


The abovementioned retailers recognised that they needed to change to serve disabled consumers better. But much more can be done, particularly online, where many shopping journeys begin, and where brands have a 24/7 opportunity to foster a positive customer experience (CX).

Progress report

Mike Adams, CEO of Purple, an organisation that aims to bring businesses and disabled people together, says retail is moving in the right direction, “but very slowly”.

Research released by Purple in September showed that 75% of disabled people of all ages have had to leave a store or website in the past because they were unable to finish a purchase due to their disability.

Apart from underlining the social obligation to serve consumers how they want to be served, Purple is raising awareness of the missed commercial opportunity. It talks of the £249bn “purple pound” annual spending power of households where a disabled person lives.

“We are starting to see the importance of a blended online and physical shopping experience,” says Adams, highlighting the importance of digital accessibility. “We know less than 10% of businesses have a strategy to access the market of disabled consumers. For those shoppers, websites are the gateway to those businesses.”

Tesco’s story

Tesco, the UK’s largest retailer, built in certain accessibility functionality when replatforming and changing the design of its grocery app.

Justin Stach, former head of design and head of apps at Tesco, and Jack Roles, ex-senior user interface (UI) designer for apps at the retailer, have used their personal websites to talk about the project.

Stach writes: “If I had to characterise those core principles that we wanted to establish, they were accessibility, parsimony and utility.

“One of the team, Rob [Graham, who is still user experience design lead at Tesco], did a little bit of genius-work and saw a way to link these to Tesco’s strapline of ‘Every little helps’ and created a mnemonic, which we came back to often.”

That mnemonic was: Every – is it designed for everyone?; Little – have we pared this back to its essentials?; and Helps – are we maximising for usefulness?

“So right there, in our principles for the product ,was the intent to ensure that the app we were working on was accessible to everyone,” says Stach.

The Tesco app replatforming was undertaken with mobile technology company The App Business (TAB).

“Rather than seeing accessibility as an option or an aspiration, they shared our belief that it needed to be baked in from the very beginning: in our UI design, in our development process, and in our tests and reviews,” says Stach.

“The team chose to use accessibility and inclusion as healthy constraints which guided us towards building a better product.”

Developing an accessible product involved choosing colours in the design system that scored an AA in the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) global standards.

Jay Clark, product designer at TAB, explains via online publishing platform Medium that the developer team used VoiceOver and TalkBack, screen readers for iOS and Android respectively, and Dynamic Type programming, to ensure optimum app accessibility.

He says: “If you create an app which is going to be usable by visually impaired customers, the app also becomes easier to use for people with various situational limitations, such as somebody on the move, somebody using a phone with a poor display, and people using their phones on a sunny day with screen glare.”

Quiet movement

Convincing retailers to talk about digital accessibility is no easy task, with some of the sector’s largest players opting not to accept Computer Weekly’s offer to share details.

Gary Moore, CEO at AbilityNet, an IT accessibility consultancy, says companies are going through a process towards better online accessibility – but it takes time to bake this into development methods.

He suggests many retailers are in a cycle of deciding that they need to be more accessible online, and choosing to update the latest iteration of their website or app. But they then get their digital assets audited and realise there are a lot of empty boxes on the checklist.

“You have to decide you’re going to make your service accessible – it doesn’t happen by magic,” says Moore. “Generally speaking, those I meet want to do the right thing and are conscious about serving disabled consumers, and they want to make sure their app is as accessible as possible. But achieving perfection – as in all things digital – is virtually impossible and it creates a tricky conversation for companies.”

It is very difficult for companies to make their digital assets suitable for people with motor impairment, visual impairment, and those with hearing issues, says Moore. And there are many other disabilities to consider, of course.

European online marketplace Zalando did offer to comment on its accessibility strategy. “Our goal is to provide a seamless customer journey in our ‘store’ and to offer customers the same core experience regardless of disability,” says a spokesperson.

“As such, we are committed to the WCAG 2.1 and are currently on track to provide a fully accessible core customer journey, to WCAG AA-compliant standards, during the course of 2020.”

Some Zalando pages, including the login and registration pages, are already WCAG AA compliant. 

Legislation and raising awareness 

However, it might take full legislation for wider retail to take action and improve their digital services in a way that meets the needs of disabled consumers.

With councils and government services digitising and websites becoming more commonly used for people’s queries instead of phone lines, all public sector bodies and institutions in the UK must now be fully accessible online.

AbilityNet’s Moore adds: “If we go down the same route as the US, one might surmise that it won’t be long before private companies will also endure a legal responsibility for their online services to be completely accessible.”

In the US, general merchandise retailer Target is one of a number of businesses to have faced – and lost – lawsuits related the accessibility of its website.

Meanwhile, Domino’s Pizza is involved in an ongoing lawsuit, in which a blind man claims that his inability to use the company’s app or website despite deploying screen reading software is a violation of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act. The business has petitioned the US Supreme Court to hear the case and argues that the laws were written before the internet and would be unfair if applied digitally.

It could be a landmark case and, once resolved, will set a precedent one way or another.

Raising awareness of disabled people’s digital needs remains key, and the second annual Purple Tuesday will take place in the UK on 13 November 2019. The event, led by Adams and Purple, aims to get businesses to commit to at least one CX accessibility improvement, and promotes the commercial benefits of catering for disabled consumers.

Retailers including Asda, Dunelm and Marks and Spencer were among 750 organisations that took part in 2018, and Adams expects twice as many to sign up this year.

 “We’ll have representation in a huge range of sectors, we’re seeing organisations from last year being more committed, and we’re starting to see a pattern around greater online initiatives, which is great,” says Adams.

Read more about retail technology

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Hilary Stephenson, managing director at Sigma, a user experience and digital agency focused on accessible design, says traditional marketing models that segment audiences often forget disabled people.

She also warns that as retailers embark on new gamified online offers and visually-led marketing messaging, this can be missed by people with cognitive or visual impairments.

“One-day initiatives such as Purple Tuesday are good awareness campaigns, but inclusion has to occur all year round,” says Stephenson.

“When you run things like that, people get excited, but once it’s over, they go back to what they were doing before. We are calling for people to look at the web inclusivity directive and embed inclusion into their processes as standard.”

Chris Bush, head of experience design at Sigma, adds: “Organisations are clearly realising they need to build more accessible spaces, but it’s amazing how few of them are translating that through to their digital space.”

This may seem like yet another component of digital transformation for retailers on what is a long to-do list for many, but if the moral obligation is not enough of a pull to take action, the potential commercial benefits might be hard to ignore.

There are 12 million people in the UK who identify as disabled. Retailers that do not set up their propositions to cater for disabled people’s needs are potentially isolating themselves from 18% of the population – and that is a significant consumer market to rule out.

Read more on IT for retail and logistics

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