According to research published yesterday by Business Disability Forum (BDF), consumers with disabilities are routinely left in a state of confusion and hesitancy as a result of retailers being uncertain about how accessible their products might be and how this type of information should be conveyed.

The report, entitled “What disabled consumers choose to buy and why”’ was sponsored by Microsoft and looked into the buying experiences of the one in five consumers across the U.K. living with one or more disabilities.

The research was undertaken and compiled by Open Inclusion and involved focus groups, 698 survey respondents and a National Representative Ipsos Mori survey of 1000 people – covering the sectors of retail, hospitality, utilities, days out and leisure, holiday accommodation, banking and insurance and technology.

Amongst the key findings, it was identified that 65% of disabled consumers felt their purchasing choices were limited on a daily basis by barriers and 43% reported abandoning an online or in-person shopping task early due to a paucity of information on design and how it might relate to accessibility.

The financial consequences for retailers of getting this so wrong are potentially dire – with the global spending power of disabled people equalling a market the size of China – the “Purple Pound” in the U.K. alone accounting for some £274 billion annually.

Commenting on the research, Diane Lightfoot Business Disability Forum’s CEO said, “Businesses cannot afford to overlook the needs and spending habits of disabled consumers.

“Yet, too often, disabled people face limited choice, increased costs, or even difficulty finding the goods and services they want and need. For disabled people, the need for better access to services and products has never been more urgent. Many disabled people face additional costs associated with having a disability. With living costs rising, it is more important than ever that disabled consumers have the information they need to make informed purchasing decisions and to get the best deals possible.”

Tough choices

Certainly, the customer journey for consumers with disabilities almost always involves a longer, more windy, road – strewn with many more barriers and complexities to making a confident purchasing decision than that of their non-disabled counterparts.

For a start, there is the extra research required to work out if a product or service is accessible enough to meet their unique needs, what scope may exist for adaptations and whether they would be cost-effective – not to forget the fact that this very research may have to be undertaken on websites that are themselves inaccessible in whole or in part.

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Depending on the sector, the flavor of the accessibility signposting required might be slightly different.

A utilities website may primarily rely on simply presenting information in an accessible format with a readable user-friendly structure, whereas a company advertising holiday rentals would need to take a more illustrative approach – ensuring that there are clear, easy-to-view photographs of access and egress to the property.

In a bricks-and-mortar retail environment, beyond simple access to the building – discussion and information gathering related to products would likely take on a more informal conversational style with a sales assistant.

The key for retailers and service providers across all sectors is anticipating the type of product information a customer with a disability is likely to want to know and being able to highlight this at the outset.

Contrary to what some may believe, not all consumers with disabilities are accessibility evangelists looking to write letters of complaint to head office or post bad reviews on Amazon.

They are, generally speaking, much like any other consumer – short on time and wanting to buy confidently with a post-purchase sense of satisfaction that the correct transaction has been made.

For this customer segment, though they typically don’t want to spend too many extra hours researching, there can be a substantial sense of accomplishment accompanying identifying a genuine “life hack” along with a desire to reward and stay loyal to the brands that help them get there.

Disabled people are also realists. They know that not all products and services are likely to be accessible or ideal for them. Still, at the very least, they demand an acknowledgment from retailers that these needs exist and that their sales staff, websites and displays provide sufficient information for it to be relatively quick and easy to establish if such needs can be met.

This is not so much about turning a blind eye to inaccessible products and hoping nobody will notice. On the contrary, as Lightfoot explained, “A product may be brilliantly accessible – but if you don’t tell your customers that, or they can’t find the information they need, they won’t buy it. As ever, ‘we don’t know what we don’t know.’

Above and beyond

In addition to bolstering the quality of accessibility-related information through staff product training – the report also suggests a number of supporting initiatives brands might adopt in pursuit of a more holistic approach.

One quick win is for retail staff to develop a keen understanding of disability etiquette and not fall into traps such as speaking to a wheelchair user in a deliberately slow and simple voice because – surely, they can’t communicate either, right?

Worse still – only addressing the disabled person’s husband, wife, partner or friend – even though they’re sitting right there.

Aside from funding training on disability customer etiquette 101, leadership teams might also want to think about showing more people with disabilities in their marketing and advertising and hopefully, not determine it too controversial to start employing a few more on the shop floor too.

If all else fails, common sense should prevail along with the tried and tested customer service formula of – when in doubt, just go above and beyond.

With this in mind, the report references an uplifting anecdote about a blind lady asking the staff at major department store brand John Lewis if a pair of hair straighteners she was interested in buying featured an audio alert upon reaching the required temperature.

Being unable to spot such information on the side of the box, the staff at John Lewis did not respond with a shrug of the shoulders, as some might, but instead, took out the device and switched it on to try.

Why go that extra mile for such a seemingly narrow use case? The final choice is, ultimately, highly subjective but we can all think of 243 billion additional reasons.

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