On 3 November 2020, retailers are once again being encouraged to make changes to improve the customer experience for disabled people, whether that’s instore or online.
Purple Tuesday was set up by the charity Purple in 2018 to make organisations more aware of the commercial and social opportunities associated with being more disability inclusive, and it’s fair to say the pandemic has made this year’s event even more important.
A lot has already happened to bring about significant and positive changes, but as was borne out in my recent interview with GB Para-archer and disability inclusivity champion, Chloe Ball-Hopkins, there is even more that needs to be done. The pandemic has in many ways made it even more difficult for disabled people to shop. New store layouts can be problematic at best and it can be challenging to find suitable items online – especially clothing, which is generally aimed at able-bodied customers.
This has two big implications for retailers. First, it means that even the most inclusive of retailers need to ensure they have understood the impact of the pandemic on disabled customers and that they’ve made any necessary adjustments to ensure they’re not falling short of their obligations.
Second, it presents an even bigger opportunity for retailers to stand out in the market by making sure their buildings, websites, rules and restrictions, alterations, customer services and so on are inclusive.
Retailers are reportedly missing out on an incredible £249 billion a year if they are not catering for the Purple Pound – the collective spending power of disabled people and their families. As retailers re-design their offerings for the post-pandemic consumer, now seems like an ideal opportunity to put disability inclusivity at the heart of those plans and to let it be a driver for change.
The growth of online
One of the big impacts of the pandemic on retail has been the increase in online shopping, where people might previously have shopped instore.
For example, the number of consumers in the UK who do a weekly grocery shop online has doubled since the coronavirus lockdown, according to a consumer poll by Waitrose. Meanwhile, a survey from Barclays Corporate Banking revealed that 15% of UK companies have created roles specifically to cater to an increase in digital sales and boost online capacity since the pandemic.
Small and independent stores across the country have also had to quickly create or expand their online presence, requiring a whole new way of thinking and a host of new skills.
I discussed the necessity of online shopping for those disabled people who can’t currently go instore with Chloe. Chloe was diagnosed with a rare form of Muscular Dystrophy at the age of four and spends most of her time in a wheelchair. As she explains in her TED Talk ‘Why isn’t fashion inclusive of disabled people?’ she struggles to find clothing that is comfortable enough to wear in a wheelchair all day, as well as it being practical and something she’d feel good wearing.
Her ‘Click for Inclusive’ campaign is encouraging fashion retailers to clearly identify their “inclusive” clothing on their websites – by which she means clothes that are suitable for disabled and able-bodied people alike – and to make this more easily searchable by adding an ‘Inclusive’ category to their search options.
She has previously collaborated with ASOS to design an inclusive jumpsuit which was worn by herself and an able-bodied model for the photo shoot, and sees huge potential for retailers to do more to make this style of clothing and way of retailing the norm.
“There’s an enormous opportunity for retailers to make themselves more attractive to someone like me,” she says. “I’ve spent years working out what kinds of clothes work for me, but every purchase is a risk. The thing is, all of these clothes already exist, but retailers aren’t making them very easy to find. There’s a huge social and commercial opportunity for the first retailer to recognise this and make the change, and I think as soon as one brand does this, the rest will follow.”
Another issue that’s close to retailers’ hearts is returns, which are bad for profits and the environment. As Chloe comments, making suitable products easier for disabled customers to find would reduce the rate of returns, creating yet another incentive for retailers to improve their disability inclusivity online.
Of course, people are continuing to shop instore as well, and the pandemic has had a significant impact on accessibility. Retailers have had to make various changes to how people use and move around their stores in order to comply with social distancing requirements and health and safety – from new queuing systems to one-way navigation – and this often means less space.
When making physical alterations to stores, retailers should think about disabled staff and customers, and also whether anything further is needed as government restrictions and store plans evolve.
It’s also worth noting that most retailers occupy premises under a lease, and these usually prohibit some alterations and require the landlord’s consent for others. The Equality Act 2010, which implies a reasonableness consent regime into leases, may assist when making alterations that require consent from a landlord and are needed to support someone with a disability, but it’s worth doing a full assessment before carrying out any works.
Purple Tuesday is encouraging retailers to make long-lasting and effective changes. With the right expertise and the right commitments, retailers have a unique opportunity to improve the customer experience for disabled people and grow their share of the Purple Pound.
By Emma Flower, partner at UK law firm TLT