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Are you discriminating against shoppers with disabilities?

Ahead of accessible shopping day Purple Tuesday, Drapers hears from shoppers with disabilities about how well they are being served by the high street and explores how retailers should be focusing on accessibility.

Seema Flower likes to go shopping. She enjoys the social interaction that comes from visiting the high street, as well as touching clothes before she tries them on.

Flower has retinitis pigmentosa – a genetic eye condition that causes gradual loss of vision. She has been registered as blind since she was 12 and, when she does go shopping, she uses a white cane and goes with a support worker. Loud, pumping music, disorientating lighting and poorly placed fittings can all make Flower’s shopping experience more difficult.

“I have a passion for retail and I’m a very tactile person,” she tells Drapers. “I like to feel clothes to get an idea of what they’re like. The social aspect of going out to visit shops is also important, because having a disability can be very isolating. 

“Shopping should not be a daunting experience for anyone – it should be stress-free and enjoyable, whoever you are.”

Flower is a disability and visual awareness expert, as well as the founder and managing director of inclusivity consultancy Blind Ambition. 

Drapers asked her to spend an afternoon at her local shopping centre – Eden in High Wycombe – to assess how well the high street is serving customers with disabilities. She visited five retailers, all of which were big high street multiples, to analyse the level of service she received, how accessible stores were and the overall ease of her experience.

Poor service

Bad or – worryingly often – completely non-existent customer service is a regular criticism of many retail giants from all shoppers. Drapers has repeatedly called for better service on the high street in our Hit or Miss series, when the team hits the road to secret shop stores around the country (see p18 for the menswear review). Already business critical, better service is vital if the high street is to become more welcoming for disabled shoppers.

Flower’s experience with staff was something of a mixed bag during her visit to Eden. There were undoubtedly some excellent examples of good customer service: friendly, engaging staff who felt confident guiding her towards specific products, handing her items to feel and verbally telling her the prices of items.

My experience varied from store to store, but there is a lot of room for improvement

Seema Flower

There were occasions, however, when staff did not know how to engage with a customer who has a disability. Whether a result of inexperience, or a lack of confidence, training or interest, at times Flower was left feeling unwelcome and excluded. Poor examples of service included staff wandering off mid-interaction, holding up products without describing them or pointing to items and having to be reminded that Flower is blind.

“My experience varied from store to store, but there is a lot of room for improvement,” Flower says. “In some shops there was nobody around to ask for help because they were too busy unloading deliveries. Some staff didn’t seem to know what they were doing and weren’t interested in helping, which was frustrating.

“I need staff to approach me, not stand in front of me without saying anything. It’s also about little things, like handing me the card machine and telling me how much my items cost, rather than relying on body language and visual communication.” It is clear that more training is needed to ensure store staff are confident and comfortable when interacting with shoppers with disabilities.

Most stores Flower visited were initially accessible to shoppers with disabilities. Wide doors and lifts to other floors made getting around shops easy, but browsing cramped aisles alongside a support worker proved more of a challenge.

Flower notes that some aisles were cluttered, which would present a particular challenge to wheelchair users. Stands of merchandise clustered around till points also made paying difficult.

“I noticed there was a lot of merchandising around tills, which made them very tight to navigate and meant we had to weave around them,” she observes. “That’s something retailers need to think about. There have also been times when I’ve been out shopping and been hit by badly placed rails or fixtures that are sticking out, only to come back and find the same hazard a few weeks later. Retailers have offered a voucher as an apology but that’s not what I want: I want them to make lasting changes.”

Retailers also need to consider how the overall store environment could alienate customers with disabilities or make things harder for them.

“It’s not just fixtures and fittings,” Flower explains. “Lighting needs to be considered. Dramatic colour contrasts, reflections on the ground and slippery surfaces can all make a big difference when it comes to how easily I can navigate a store.

“Very loud music playing in the store can also be an issue for people with visual impairments [who rely more on hearing].”

Reflecting on her shopping experience, Flower says: “There is a lot of information out there that can help businesses to become more accessible. 

“Retailers need to get mystery shoppers with disabilities in and recruit more disabled people to get their perspectives.”

Missed opportunities

Failing to cater to shoppers with disabilities, such as Flower, represents a huge missed opportunity for fashion. Retailers could be losing out on the £249bn spent each year by disabled consumers, research published earlier this year by disability charity Purple indicates. 

More than half of respondents to the Purple survey said they had experienced difficulty when  making a purchase either online or in store on more than one occasion. Young people with disabilities were particularly hard hit – three-quarters said they had struggled to make a purchase in store or online.

Pick the easy things to do first and build from there

Mike Adams, Purple

To help tackle these challenges, the charity launched accessible shopping day Purple Tuesday last year. The event encourages retailers, organisations and shopping centres to make a commitment to improving the shopping experience of people with disabilities. 

Participants in this year’s event on 12 November include footwear retailer Hotter and Revo, the representative body for the retail property sector.

“Disabled people want to access fashionable goods and they have the spending power to do so,” explains Mike Adams, CEO of Purple. “The advice I always give to businesses who want to become more accessible is pick the easy things to do first and build from there. There are a lot of very simple things you can do, like checking how accessible your website is – a good test is how easy it is navigate just using the arrow on your keyboard.

“[In store], some businesses have taught staff how to say hello and goodbye in British sign language, which has been very well received. No organisation is perfect, but you can’t choose to just opt out because you think it’s too difficult.”

Samantha Sen, head of policy and campaigns at Revo, adds: “Retail has a responsibility to be as inclusive as possible. There’s the social side and a moral responsibility, but also a significant business opportunity, because of the power of the ‘purple pound’. It is a complex issue, however, and a broad issue to contend with as a business, so some are grappling with the best approach. My advice would be to access the wealth of support from charities and organisations that’s out there, and take small, practical steps.”

Making a change

The wider retail industry is making moves, albeit slowly, to cater to the needs of consumers with disabilities. Debenhams has run an education programme this year for store colleagues on how best to welcome shoppers with autism and took part in the National Autistic Society’s Autism Hour campaign last month. The retailer created a more autism-friendly shopping experience by turning down music and tannoy announcements, as well as dimming lights. 

Following a trial, Sainsbury’s made lanyards for shoppers with hidden disabilities available in all  its stores nationwide last month. The lanyards, which are decorated with sunflowers, are a sign for store colleagues that the shopper has a hidden disability – such as autism, dementia or visual impairment – and may require extra help.

This week, shopping centre owner Intu announced it would be introducing sunflower lanyards at all its locations. After a successful trial at its Metrocentre and Eldon Square centres, it also loans out sensory backpacks for autistic people. They include items such as ear defenders, sunglasses, fidget toys and visual symbols to help with communication. In addition, it has rolled out autism training to staff.

Becoming more accessible is not the preserve of retail giants such as Debenhams and Sainsbury’s. There are also steps smaller retailers can take to better welcome shoppers with disabilities. 

You don’t need to be a big hitter to create a more inclusive environment

Rose Martin, Nelly McCabe

Irish menswear independent Galvin Tullamore, winner of Best Customer Experience at this year’s Drapers Independents Awards, introduced weekly “Autism Quiet Evenings”, last year. These allow customers with autism to shop in a calmer environment with lower lighting, no music, and reduced till sounds, and it offers additional assistance if required. Judges said the quiet evenings were an “amazing and thoughtful touch”. Intu also hosts regular “quiet hours” at its centres.

Rose Martin, owner of Glasgow womenswear independent Nelly McCabe, stresses that you do not need a vast budget to make meaningful changes: “I first became aware of the need to make retail more accessible in 2011, when my mum started using a wheelchair. The shopping experiences we had were awful. You can’t navigate the aisles, the person in the wheelchair is totally ignored, staff are completely unaware. We used to dread going shopping.

“At our store, we’ve made adjustments that don’t cost a lot of money, like making sure the aisles are wide enough for people with walking aids, and having a mobile card machine that someone in a wheelchair could use on their lap. You don’t need to be a big hitter to create a more inclusive environment.”

Creating more accessible store environments is important, but it is only part of the puzzle when it comes tapping into the “purple pound”. The global market for adaptive fashion – clothing designed for shoppers with disabilities – is to set to reach $400bn (£308bn) by 2026, research firm Coherent Market Insights suggests.

Marks & Spencer created a range of clothing for children with disabilities last year, and Tommy Hilfiger unveiled an adaptive range (available in the US) in 2016, but this is still a hugely under-served market.

“Barely any mainstream retailers or brands speak to disabled people,” Martyn Sibley, disability campaigner and founder of magazine Disability Horizons, who uses a wheelchair as a result of spinal muscular atrophy, tells Drapers. “I need products that cater to my needs, which are usually only offered by specialist brands. I want to have the look and the logo that my non-disabled friends have, but a lot of adaptive fashion is targeted at an older consumer. Retailers need to realise people with disabilities are consumers, too.”

He adds: “Younger shoppers are demanding that brands make their products more inclusive, and I believe all brands should be trying to do so, in the same way they are trying to be more sustainable.”

As Flower’s experience shows, retailers need to do more to welcome shoppers with disabilities. Staff need support and training to ensure they are confident helping each and every customer. A critical eye needs to be run over stores, including aisles and till points, to ensure they are accessible for all. Change does not have to be difficult or expensive. Small improvements can make a big difference.

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