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EDITORIAL Time to make ecommerce work for everyone

Inclusive and accessible: retail websites are improving (Image: shutterstock)

The pandemic has been a great leveller: rich or poor, we are all just as vulnerable. Likewise, it has levelled ecommerce for all of us. Shops have been shut for protracted periods of time and many have not wanted to venture out even when they were open. We have all become online shoppers in some way, shape or form.

But still some segments of society have been left behind. Ecommerce – and the omni-channel world we are about to enter come Monday when stores start to open – doesn’t work for everyone.

For many with disabilities and for many old people who either can see too well or simply don’t understand the tech nor have the tools to use it, ecommerce is something that is happening to other people. This needs to change.

According to the RNIB, for instance, there are more than 2 million people in the UK with sight loss. These people struggle to use the internet and ecommerce in its current form.

Likewise, there are roughly 9 million people over the age of 70 in the UK, many of whom are not digitally minded and who also struggle to see, hear and press small buttons on screens. Even people as ‘young’ as 50 have trouble with eyesight and hearing.

Ecommerce is a young man’s game, to coin a phrase.

The move to ecommerce ushered in by the pandemic has pushed through some changes here, with the latest stats from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) showing that 92% of adults in the UK were recent internet users in 2020, up from 91% in 2019. For the over 70s, there has also been growth, with 54% of them now online.

Likewise, the number of disabled adults who were recent internet users in 2020 reached almost 11 million, 81% of disabled adults; up from just over 10 million (78% of disabled adults) in 2019.

Many of these have been forced to use the web to do things as it has been that or nothing, but this too shows that despite having to use online, still almost half of over 75s don’t and a fifth of those registered with a disability don’t either.

The reason is that not very much has been done to make ecommerce work for these groups. Ecommerce has been shaped by millennials in their own image and, much like the likely inherent bias in AI – caused by its 1950s progenitors were all white, middle class, middle aged men – it only works for certain groups.

This has to change. No one should be left behind in the digital transformation, nor should they need to be. Retailers should be pursuing this forgotten segment as there are several million un-tapped shoppers that could help fuel much needed growth.

The key is to move away from the keyboard-screen-button paradigm that has developed out of ecommerce’s early PC-based beginnings and into something much more natural and interactive. In short, it needs to be both familiar and natural to older people (and very young people) and to be accessible through audio, visual and text channels so that those with a range of disabilities an also use it more naturally to their circumstances.

The move to using messaging and chat bots is a start: making these things all options to access all ecommerce services could open up the sector to many people currently shut out.

Similarly, the move to live streaming shopping could also benefit many older groups as it is a more familiar way to interacting with sellers and is a bit like a cross between TV and shopping in a store.

Delivery too is getting a makeover, with a new partnership between post-purchase technology company Hello Done and DHL Parcel UK integrating popular messaging apps with the carrier’s in-flight parcel tracking, enabling DHL Parcel UK drivers to be updated throughout the “last mile”. This can help people with access issues keep the driver informed about drop off and keep them posted that they made need to wait longer for them to get to the door.

With ecommerce shifting to new platforms – WhatsApp, social media, video and new apps that haven’t even been thought of yet – there is a golden opportunity to not only make ecommerce really easy to use, but something that all people can use and use in a way that works for them, whether they have visual, aural, or other disabilities.

As the vaccination roll out has demonstrated there are more than 40 million people int eh UK over the age of 50, most of us don’t think of ourselves as disabled, but eyes aren’t what they were, neither are ears. While our kids are all over new devices and tech, many millions could be left behind. Making ecommerce more naturally and offering it in a variety of new ways can only benefit us all.

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