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Accessing the £249bn purple pound

River island index

New accessible shopping day Purple Tuesday will launch on 13 November with the backing of some of the UK’s biggest retailers. Drapers investigates how the industry is improving its accessibility and inclusivity.

In the run-up to Christmas last year, Mike Adams, the CEO of disability organisation Purple, conducted a non-scientific shopping experiment. He visited 28 stores using a wheelchair pushed by his partner. In 23 of them the staff did not address Adams directly, even though he was the customer.

“Shop staff are often scared of unintentionally offending a disabled person by saying or doing the wrong thing, so they swerve the conversation altogether,” explains Adams.

On 13 November, Purple will launch a new accessible shopping day. Organisations taking part in Purple Tuesday – primarily retailers and retail property groups – will be encouraged to make at least one commitment to improve the shopping experience for people with disabilities. This could range from better staff training to introducing regular “quiet hours” or more inclusive marketing and product photography, depending on each business’s resources and needs.

Adams first pitched the idea to Sarah Newton, minister for disabled people, health and work, last November.

“I said, ‘You’ve got Black Friday, Cyber Monday – why not also use this busy period to raise awareness [of accessibility issues] with Purple Tuesday?” he recalls. “We’re not asking retailers to change the world – just make a pledge to do something they haven’t done previously.”

I said, ‘You’ve got Black Friday, Cyber Monday – why not also use this busy period to raise awareness [of accessibility issues] with Purple Tuesday?

Mike Adams, CEO of disability organisation Purple

More than 500 organisations are now signed up in support, including Sainsbury’s, Marks & Spencer, Argos, Asda, retail property organisation Revo and shopping centre owner Hammerson.

It is perhaps Purple’s emphasis on the financial benefits of improving accessibility that has won over so many retailers. The charity estimates that disabled people collectively spend £249bn per year across retail and leisure.

“It’s a huge pot of money, yet less than 10% of businesses have a strategy to access that market,” says Adams. “Businesses are losing about £420m a week in sales to disabled people.”

Social imperative

There is also growing societal pressure to embrace diversity.

“It feels like there’s been a shift – a sea change in the way businesses are thinking about it,” says Samantha Sen, head of policy and campaigns at Revo. “Today’s consumers have higher expectations of fashion brands and the products they are buying. Accessibility issues have been prominent in the press, and disabled campaigners have been vocal about this for a long time. Retail has a role in creating inclusive communities – there’s a social good, as well as a benefit to business.”

In response to this shift, more fashion brands and retailers are featuring people with disabilities in their campaigns and stores. For example, River Island’s latest “Labels are for clothes” campaign (pictured above), launched in September, features people with disabilities, while Superdry unveiled disabled mannequins in the window of its flagship on London’s Regent Street in early October, to mark its support of the Invictus Games.

Superdry x invictus games 01

Jo Moran, head of customer service at M&S, agrees that there has been a change in thinking: “There is a wider recognition that not all disabilities are visible or obvious. It’s not surprising that retailers want to get involved in Purple Tuesday – we need to understand how to support those customers.”

Like Revo, M&S was one of the early supporters of Purple Tuesday.

Moran explains that the retailer does a lot of work on accessibility at a local level, but welcomed the opportunity to take part in a national conversation about how to improve the shopping experience for people with disabilities: “It’s an important opportunity for M&S and other retailers to work together to recognise their needs.” 

Among other initiatives, M&S has committed to refreshing its staff training: it offers access guides for disabled customers in stores and has added signs to accessible toilets that read “Not every disability is visible”, to encourage staff and other customers to think more broadly about disability.

“We want to make it sustainable,” says Moran. “We’re not just going to do the training once and forget about it – we want to make this part of what we do every day.”

Similarly, Sainsbury’s is working on making its shopping experience more accessible. For example, in September, it extended a trial that seeks to improve the shopping experience for customers who have hidden disabilities. These customers can pick up a sunflower lanyard in store, which discreetly lets staff know that they may need additional support.

Purple tuesday

“We are always looking for ways to improve and adapt to meet our customers’ needs,” says Tim Fallowfield, company secretary and corporate services director. “By taking steps towards improving accessible shopping during the busiest shopping period of the year, we hope to increase awareness and understanding of the challenges, while also providing an enhanced shopping experience for our disabled customers.”

Common-sense adjustments

There are legal requirements on companies to make “reasonable adjustments” to accommodate people with disabilities under the Equality Act 2010. But Adams argues that retailers should instead focus on making “common-sense adjustments”. 

He points out that all fashion brands and retailers can take steps to become more accessible, regardless of size: “It doesn’t matter if you’re Tommy Hilfiger using disabled models, or [independent retailer] Nelly McCabe in Glasgow changing the experience for your disabled shoppers. You can do a lot, quickly, at very little cost.”

What we’re talking about is very simple and costs very little cost

Samantha Sen, head of policy and campaigns at Revo

For example, some retailers do not promote their personal shopping services to disabled shoppers, and some shopping centres do not clearly signpost their disabled toilets.

“In some ways what we’re talking about is very simple and costs very little cost,” says Adams. “Staff already do training – you just need to re-orient it.”

“Cost-effective initiatives can make a big impact,” agrees Revo’s Sen. “There are practical things retailers can do for people with invisible disabilities, or they can hold ‘autism hours’, or ‘sensory days’, when they adjust the store environment.” The bright lights and loud music of some retailers can be distressing and unsettling for some people on the autistic spectrum.

Online access

Website accessibility issues can often be fixed in around two hours, says Adams: “For example, if you put everything in caps, screen readers for blind people will think it’s an acronym and read it out letter by letter. People are clicking away because of poor accessibility, but it could be sorted overnight.”

Property owner The Crown Estate has been working with Purple on ways to make both its websites and the physical spaces it owns more accessible, says director of regional Hannah Milne: “We have been looking at our websites compatibility with accessibility guidelines – ensuring the information shoppers need when considering visiting one of our destinations is readily available and in a fully accessible, easy to navigate format.”

With widespread backing from the retail industry, as well as endorsement from the government, Purple Tuesday looks set to be a success.

Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the British Retail Consortium, says it is an “important step to raise awareness of the needs of disabled consumers and to ensure the retail industry is taking the lead on improving accessibility in the long term”.

Attitudes towards disability are gradually changing, and consumers increasingly expect fashion brands and retailers to reflect society’s diversity. However, the industry has been slow to take this issue seriously. Support for Purple Tuesday is a step in the right direction, but efforts to make businesses more accessible to people with disabilities must extend beyond this single shopping day.

There is still a lot of work to do, but the financial and social benefits are clear, and small changes can make a big difference. 


Riverisland aw18 campaign final highres 009

How to improve accessibility

  1. Conduct an accessibility audit of your organisation
  2. Provide disability-focused customer service training to your staff
  3. Sign up to the government’s Disability Confident scheme
  4. Appoint a member of your senior leadership team as “disability champion”
  5. Introduce regular “quiet hours” in store
  6. Introduce or expand personal shopping services and promote them to disabled customers
  7. Provide the option to buy now and collect later, or buy in store for home delivery
  8. Commit to employing more disabled people
  9. Improve the physical accessibility of your locations
  10. Improve store wayfinding
  11. More inclusive marketing and product photography (for example, using disabled models)
  12. Improve the accessibility of your websites and apps
  13. Put up “Not all disabilities are visible” signage on accessible toilets and changing rooms
  14. Include specific accessibility questions in customer feedback surveys
  15. Recruit disabled mystery shoppers to give feedback on the customer experience


Purple Tuesday – the legal issues


Under the Equality Act 2010, a disabled employee must not be subjected to less favourable treatment because of their disability. Employers must also take reasonable steps to prevent discrimination or harassment. They can be held liable for the actions of their employees and, in some cases, third parties such as customers. This is likely to have an impact on how to conduct performance reviews, interviews and redundancy selection. There are also issues around using incorrect terminology in the workplace, how to address “hidden disabilities”, managing behaviour of employees, and the requirement for more representative job adverts and physical features such as lifts, ramps and wheelchair access. There may also be an impact on the real estate sector: for example, the requirement for greater accessibility for buildings and more space for wheelchair access and disabled changing rooms.


If a business provides services through a website, including online shopping, direct marketing or advertising, they are known as an Information Society Service Provider (ISSP). All ISSPs must make sure that they do not allow discriminatory advertisements or information to appear on their websites, that they do not allow the placing of information which is discriminatory, and that they make reasonable adjustments to make sure that their websites are accessible to disabled people. Websites must be made accessible to all users, including those with visual impairments who use text-to speech software, those with manual dexterity impairments who cannot use a mouse and those with dyslexia and learning difficulties.

Consumer claims

Under the Equality Act, retailers have the same obligations to their customers as employers do to their workers, irrespective of the size of the business. Problems may arise in relation to the requirement to make reasonable adjustments so that disabled consumers can access and use goods and services in the same way as non-disabled individuals. This could include providing information in alternative formats, such as large print or Braille, or providing additional staff assistance or staff training.


It is likely that businesses will be required to use more representative advertising and marketing campaigns in the future. In doing so, they must ensure compliance with provisions of the UK Code of Non-broadcast Advertising, Sales Promotion and Direct Marketing. Guidance states that companies have a responsibility to ensure that their advertisements do not have an adverse impact on society.

*Source: Fox Williams



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