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Ensuring digital accessibility is part of the retail journey

The rapid acceleration of digital transformation has been one of the most remarkable aspects of the global response to the coronavirus pandemic, with people literally Zooming to stay in touch and accessing online products and services in unprecedented numbers. 

There is little doubt that the coronavirus has dealt a devastating blow to the traditional “bricks and mortar” face of the retail sector, with many famous High Street names now closing stores permanently and cutting jobs.

For retailers with an online presence, however, pandemic brought opportunities to build from a position of increasing strength. There was a time in early lockdown when securing a supermarket home delivery slot meant a wait of several weeks and little wonder.

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Easing of lockdown has seen a gradual return to bricks and mortar business premises so long as they are Covid-secure, with measures including social distancing markings and opportunities for staff and customers to hand sanitise.


But many customers are in no rush to return to the shops having got used to ordering online. Others have no choice but to be more careful, with evidence to suggest that those with underlying health conditions and disabilities are at most risk of the most serious consequences of contracting coronavirus.

Digital transformation post-Covid

It’s also been interesting to see the impact that digital technology is having on the physical retail environment. Many stores are now entirely cashless, with customers asked to use contactless means of payment. Bars and restaurants have introduced digital booking systems and app ordering.

Accessibility now extends beyond the physical in-store experience, with lots of bars and restaurants now requiring customers to book in advance – leisure outlets must ensure their websites are easy to navigate too. 

Government guidelines have at least been helpful in ensuring little doubt among retail managers about the requirements of operating safely in a post-Covid world. One way systems, contactless payments and floor markings are among the measures which are now familiar.

Sadly, the same is not always true of the online experience. Physical safety in an online shopping environment is at least one headache the coronavirus SAGE committee does not need to worry about. Retailers on the other hand, definitely do.

With more people than ever before now relying on digital retail in the “new normal” of the post-Covid-19 world, retailers must now ask an important question of themselves: Is my digital retail offer accessible in the new normal, both in the physical and virtual sense?

Research by disability charity, Purple, revealed that three-quarters (75%) of disabled people have had to leave a physical store because they were unable to finish a purchase due to their disability.

Legal implications for those that don’t cater to all

Equally, it’s worth remembering that a retailer could run the risk of legal action if they provide a website which is not accessible to disabled users. The Equality Act 2010 was introduced with the intention of dealing with the issue of disability discrimination. As long ago as 2012, European low cost airline BMIBaby was served with legal papers by the Royal National Institute of Blind People over an internet accessibility issue. But there are commercial and ethical reasons why it’s important to ensure all retail sites are accessible.

Sigma’s work as a digital User Experience (UX) agency entails putting users at the heart of our solutions, adding genuine business value and bringing people together. We’re proud to have helped shape the digital world by developing long term, mutually beneficial strategic partnerships with customers. Key clients including mental health charity Mind, Astra Zeneca and the Department for Education.

Whereas people once considered physical and digital spaces separately, increasingly they are inextricably linked, part of the same retail journey, with potential barriers to business that retailers cannot afford to ignore.

Accessibility measures like the Welcome app, from Neatebox, lets users indicate the areas of a venue that they need specific assistance with, and the app delivers a detailed request and overview of the user’s condition, as well as tips for improving their interaction with the service to the business in question. This is a great example of what inclusive customer experience could be like if everyone considered accessibility.

Increased accessibility considerations have a commercial benefit 

Ultimately those that make greater considerations for disabled people will benefit commercially as more customers are able to purchase their products and services. The ‘purple pound’ is estimated to be worth £249bn, per year, however less than one in ten business have plans in place to cater for those with disabilities.

This has been a difficult time for all businesses, with retail particularly hard hit. The ‘new normal’ will mean living with coronavirus for the foreseeable future, both physically and digitally.

Reconfiguring the digital retail journey can be a complex and daunting task, and Sigma is happy to help.

But here are some simple things to consider in the meantime:

  • Are digital measures introduced to ensure safety in physical retail spaces accessible to all? Ensure that websites and apps used to make bookings and place orders can be used by anyone.
  • Is your website easy to navigate, with due consideration given to text legibility? Choice of font, character size and colour combinations can make it more difficult for some people to access information.
  • Might requiring contactless digital payments present a barrier to buying for some people? Can a safe cash alternative payment method be provided?
  • Is video content subtitled to enable accessibility for people with hearing difficulties?
  • Is your CMS system optimised for accessibility?
  • Are you using descriptive links on your web pages? This will enable accessibility for people who rely on screen readers.
  • Is your website accessible via keyboard alone? Remember that not everyone will be physically capable of navigating via a mouse.
  • Test your website, physical services and retail touchpoints for accessibility. Try to imagine the world as others do and consider the difficulties they might face. Removing digital barriers is not only the right thing to do, it could increase sales

    Hilary Stephenson, managing director at user experience (UX) design agency, Sigma

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