The journey so far: Disability provisions in the retail sector

The provision of parking badges, disabled toilets and disability training schemes, are just some examples of the retail sectors commitment to disabled customers, however amid the launch of Tesco’s new scheme ‘quiet hour’, it begs the question whether retailers need to take further steps to provide for the disability community

Tesco, among other retailers, has recently implemented a ‘quiet hour’ scheme in a bid to improve its inclusivity. Measures such as the dimming of lights and reduction of noise are included in the retailer’s plan to make shopping a more ‘calming’ experience for minority groups. Although this is evidence of the sector’s commitment to providing for customers with disabilities, it is possible that not all retailers are so accommodating. 

According to a study conducted by the BRC, it could be suggested that not enough is being done to support disabled consumers across the retail landscape, and indeed all landscapes in general. According to the Purple Pound, an organisation that acts as a voice for the disabled community, only 3% of retailer’s websites meet accessibility standards, and a recent study by the British Retail Consortium (BRC) found that a ‘sizable minority’ of retailers had not put a plan in place to provide for disabled people in 2021, with as little as half of retailers considering the minority group in strategic decision-making. 

The difficulty in addressing inequalities that lie within ‘disability’ in comparison to other minority groups, to some extent, roots from the worry of ‘saying the wrong thing’, according to the BRC. Discussions around gender, for example, have become more ‘comfortable’ in post-modern society, however there is a certain ‘nervousness’ around the topic of disability, or to put more precisely, “the lack of disability confidence in staff”, according to Charlotte Overend, head of business partnerships at the Purple Pound. This is perhaps because people have a “skewed perception” of what disability is. Overend contends: “whilst the wheelchair symbol has increased awareness of the disabled community internationally, it has also had a negative impact by reinforcing the image that disability is about being a wheelchair user. Recognising the whole disability community and the diversity of the community rather than focusing on what is the perceived sign is paramount.”

Overend adds: “If we do not inform the frontline staff, the business owner and the retailer of what ‘disability’ actually means, for instance, what types of disability there are, then how can you make the changes that are needed? We just have to reorient what people think of disability.”

However, it is not to say that retailers are not increasing their disability provisions, in fact, according to Overend, some retailers have recently enforced them such as “hidden sunflower lanyards, new toilet signage and invested in a huge uptake of training.” As well as new physical measures, Andrew Goodacre, CEO of the British Independent Retailer Association (BIRA) says the organisation “ran an initiative about accessibility for blind people and people with hard sight, working with members of those who have online presence to make sure their websites are accessible for customers with sight disabilities.” 

The association also noted that more independent retailers, as opposed to larger chains, have deeper relationships with their customers. “When they know that their customer has a disability they naturally make adjustments and it could be simply making sure the aisles are clear, ensuring a clear pathway for people to move around and making sure the store is quiet” says Goodacre. Yet the association admitted that they often “can always do more”.

Disability associations feel there is concern over the lack of consistency of disability measures, particularly within independent retailers. Overened also believes this is the case and stresses: “We still hear just too much from disabled people about the barriers they are still experiencing when shopping in stores. It is the same feedback we get all the time; narrowing of aisles, inaccessible changing rooms, mobility aids and disabled toilets, or disabled toilets being used as storage rooms, being out of order and not being a priority to be fixed.” One of the most pressing issues reported by the Purple Pound is the lack of accessibility information. “The first port of call for any disabled person if they are going somewhere is to go and seek out accessibility information, and if it is not on their website, they will just not go,” according to Overend. 

So what does this mean for retailers? “The disability market is worth £274bn a year and if retailers are not providing a good disabled customer experience, they are not going to be able to access this market,” Overend notes. In addition, research by the Purple Pound suggests disability inclusive organisations ‘outperform their peers year-on-year’. Recent evidence from the BRC reports that just 7% of retailers have at least one disabled leader, with physically disabled employees accounting for less than 1% of executive committee members. 

As Overend simply puts, “50% of people have a disabled family member and if they are not having a good shopping experience is it likely that other family members will spend their money at that retailer? Probably not.” According to the Purple Pound, Covid-19 saw further revenue loss for retailers in relation to disabled consumers, since one in 3 disabled customers ‘had difficulty shopping online during the pandemic’. BIRA’s latest statistics show that online shopping currently makes 32% of all retail sales, in comparison to the pre-pandemic level of 19% and Overend explains, “the in-accessibility of some retailers’ websites lead to a total of £411mn lost revenue.” 

As well as an absence of revenue, it is argued there was a general absence of consideration for disabled people throughout the duration of the pandemic. “The pandemic really did shine a massive light on the inequality experienced by disabled customers” says Overend. “When we had to socially distance outside stores a lot of the time the queues covered disabled parking spots and prevented disabled people from getting into the store.Accessibility and disability was not at the forefront of the decisions and the pandemic actually caused businesses to be more ‘disability-unfriendly’.”

Yet because of this some people believe the pandemic has increased retailers’ awareness of disabled consumers. According to the BRC, some 50 leading retailers signed up to a diversity and inclusion programme after the pandemic, pledging to take action to improve diversity practises across the retail industry after it became aware that ‘so much more needs to be done’. Retailers such as Aldi, Asda Stores, Lidl GB, Ocado Retail, Sainsbury’s and The Co-operative Group are members of the scheme. Independent retailers also said they have understood the need for disability inclusivity. 

Goodacre says, “Covid has made us more aware in many ways. We are far more conscious of environmental issues and I would like to think that people have become more aware of the role that disabled people play in society,”. In addition, the Purple Pound suggested organisations issued ‘reflection pieces’ that called for focus to be put on disabled consumers and Overend agrees it encouraged “retailers to implement new changes”, such as Tesco’s ‘quiet hour’. 

According to BIRA, one of the main issues some independent high street retailers may not be able to remedy is floor space, however it is aware of the need to ‘do more’ for disabled shoppers. “Simply talking to you has made me realise that there is more we can do. Have we done enough as an association? The answer is no, and again I think it is from an educational perspective; we need to talk to people, the experts which would help us.” The BRC suggests how crucial disabled voices can be as it reports a chief people officer (CPO) of a specialist retailer told the firm a disabled member of its management team had given a presentation to the board and executive committee sharing their experience of being disabled in the workplace, and suggesting areas where the business could improve. The BRC says it was ‘game-changing’ in terms of ‘understanding disability’.“Only 8% of the disabled population are wheelchair users, so 92% will not have the issue of narrow aisles,” according to Overend. 

It seems that a recurring barrier of improving disability provisions may be retailers not having an accurate insight to what disability is. ‘How can this be changed?’ You may ask, the answer, according to the Purple Pound, involves making disabled customers the decision-makers in the provision of disability measures. Overend says, “businesses need to ensure disabled people are part of those discussions and solutions because at the end of the day they are experts on what works for them.” 

It is apparent that disability in the retail sector proves a much-discussed topic. Retailers are showing evidence of being disability-friendly from training schemes to the widening of aisles and implementing new schemes in order to continue their inclusivity efforts. However, some retailers, particularly independent stores, may be faced with difficult barriers they themselves have to overcome in order to improve their offering. 

Evidence suggests we are still seeing barriers such as lack of knowledge, an inaccurate definition of disability and inaccessible aspects including websites or physical measures for instance, parking and in-accessible toilets not being addressed. Although there has been an advance in provisions for disabled people, it is likely that the disability journey will still take a considerable time and effort from both campaigners and retailers before there is an equal experience between disabled and able-bodied shoppers. 

According to the BRC, some of the most successful retailers in providing great customer experience for disabled consumers are those with a number of disabled employees among their workforce. Placing disabled consumers in charge of disability provision decision-making may be the next step in improving disabled consumers’ experience in the retail industry. 


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