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Online retailers urged to improve website accessibility for all abilities in light of Purple Tuesday

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Web design experts are calling for online retailers to improve their website accessibility, as customer experience for disabled people still lags behind progress made in physical stores.

The accessibility onus has now shifted to the online retail sector, following efforts from high street retailers, such as introducing a weekly “quiet hour” to provide a welcoming environment for shoppers with autism.

However, not all retailers have welcomed change and are willing to facilitate users of different abilities. Domino’s Pizza is involved in an on-going legal battle, in the United States, as a visually impaired user claims he is unable to access the company’s app or website, which is against the country’s disability legislation. Domino’s argues that the laws were written before the advent of the internet and therefore should not apply to a digital business.

As 12 November 2019 marks Purple Tuesday, a day dedicated to the awareness of the purple pound – the spending power of disabled people – user experience (UX) and digital agency, Sigma, is calling for greater consideration in the design and functionality of websites.

Hilary Stephenson, managing director at user experience (UX) agency, Sigma, says: “There has been a step change in recent years as retailers welcome those of all abilities in-store, however there’s still lots to be done when it comes to online accessibility. The responsibility is on all businesses, whatever their size or sector, to ensure their services are accessible – as nearly one in five people in the UK has a disability or impairment. Better accessibility should not be an option, or consideration in hindsight, it should be a central customer experience consideration from the start.”   

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

Some of the most common examples of inaccessible websites and bad UX design practice include cluttered layouts, excessive pop-ups and intrusive adverts, hard to find details of – and the small print of – returns policy or delivery options and confusing and long-winded terms and conditions. Those studied also cite checkout time pressures, time-limited discounts and scarcity as a problem too.

On the technical front, many also complain about poor colour contrast on important calls to action, links or buttons, resulting in missed content or functionality; videos without audio descriptions or audio without subtitles on product descriptions; and 360 videos, options to change the product colour, fabric or pattern, and other interactive customisation features that don’t work with assistive technology.

Stephenson continues: “Retailers that make their websites more accessible to disabled consumers, for social and ethical reasons, will also benefit commercially as they enable more people to purchase their products and services. The ‘purple pound’ is estimated to be worth £249 billion, per year, however less than one in ten business have plans in place to cater for those with disabilities.”

She adds: “Implementing online accessibility measures like audio descriptions of what is happening on-screen will improve the user experience immensely. Apple’s VoiceOver or Google’s TalkBack software, will help to guide those with visual impairments through the online experience. There are also many ways to improve life for those with motor impairment and hearing issues online too.”

Stephenson concludes: “One-day initiatives such as Purple Tuesday are great for driving awareness campaigns, but inclusion has to occur all year round. There has to be an effort to apply these practices year-round. We are calling for people to look at the web inclusivity directive and embed inclusion into their processes as standard.”

Retailers get behind Purple Tuesday

Household names including Sainsbury’s, M&S and Blakemore Retail are joining hundreds of other retailers on 12 November, to improve the customer experience for disabled people by supporting Purple Tuesday 

Multiple shopping centres, including Bluewater and Intu, are also participating. Westfield is taking Purple Tuesday international with shopping centres in Germany, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland making commitments for better customer service for disabled people.  

New research published for Purple Tuesday reveals that poor customer service and a lack of staff understanding are among the key barriers preventing disabled consumers from purchasing goods and services. The research has prompted calls for businesses and organisations to rethink how they target disabled consumers and their families, whose spending power – the so-called Purple Pound – is estimated to be £249 billion every year. 

More than 2,000 businesses, organisations and stores from a range of sectors have made more than 3,500 pledges to make long-term changes as part of Purple Tuesday on 12 November. This includes: 

  • Sainsbury’s and Argos, who have announced a new trial of a weekly ‘Sunflower Hour’ in 30 stores, which involves creating a calmer environment by reducing background noise and sensory overload that launches on Purple Tuesday. The trial gives customers the option to pick up a sunflower lanyard which has been purposely designed to act as a discreet sign for store colleagues to recognise if they may need to provide a customer with additional support. Sainsbury’s was the first retailer to trial this initiative in 2018. 
  • Microsoft Store, which has committed to educating not only the community but retail businesses on how to create accessible retail experiences, work environments and improving the lives of customers and employees living with disabilities. 
  • M&S, which is committed to being the U.K.’s most accessible retailer and has introduced a number of improvements to its stores and website over the past few years – including becoming the first retailer to introduce Sunflower Lanyards into all stores for those with hidden disabilities Earlier this month M&S ran a colleague campaign “Making Every Day Accessible” introducing a number of resources for colleagues including a top tips for being disability confident video, a guide on how to run sensory friendly shopping hours and a new ‘hard of hearing’ uniform. 
  • Blakemore Retail, which is providing training for 4300 staff and making training available to their 700 independent SPAR Retailers.

Tim Fallowfield, Board Sponsor for Disability Carers and Age at Sainsbury’s and Argos, comments:  “We’re proud to show our continued support to Purple Tuesday and believe all our customers should feel confident when shopping all year round. Not all disabilities are visible so by taking steps such as introducing a weekly Sunflower Hour, we hope to provide an enhanced experience and reassurance for our customers.” 

John Carter, Senior Store Manager of the flagship Microsoft Store in London, adds: “Technology is a tool for everyone and our products and services are designed for people of all abilities. We are supporting Purple Tuesday’s call to improve the customer experience for disabled people, by inviting retailers to learn how to create accessible experiences and cultivate a diverse and inclusive workplace for customers and employees.  We will also be running free customer workshops on our accessibility tools and features. From supporting students living with dyslexia to read with confidence, to helping people with limited mobility to write with their voice, we’re calling for everyone to learn how accessibility tools can empower you to achieve more in your life.”  


Zoe Mountford, Lead Sustainability Manger at Marks & Spencer, says:  “We’re committed to making M&S the UK’s most accessible retailer, whether customers are shopping online or in-store. Earlier this year we became the first retailer to introduce sunflower lanyards for customers with hidden disabilities into all of our stores, this came one year after we launched daywear for children with disabilities and two years after we published AccessAble Guides. We know that the very best thing we can do is give great service and we work hard to make sure all our 80,000 colleagues feel disability confident. Purple Tuesday is a great opportunity to remind our stores of all the great resources we have introduced over the past year such as our colleague guide on how to support customers who are hard of hearing and our top tips video on how to be confident serving customer with disabilities.”  

75% of disabled people have had to leave a store or website, unable to go through with their purchase because of their disability1. Research shows that most complaints from disabled people relate to experiences within the business/organisation premises, with disabled people more likely to spend money with organisations if they improve2

  • staff understanding about different disabilities (56%) 
  • the overall customer experience for disabled people (41%) 
  • store/shop/location accessibility (41%) 
  • website accessibility (16%) 

More than 1 in 3 disabled people (34%) said poor customer service prevented them from making a purchase, while 33% blamed a lack of understanding from staff about their needs. Some disabled respondents said improvements should include ‘being treated the same as anyone else’ and having ‘knowledgeable staff’.  

The research has led Purple Tuesday to call on organisations to focus on straightforward, low-cost solutions to improve the customer experience for disabled people – changes that go beyond the front door. Of the 13.9 million disabled people in the UK, 80% have a hidden impairment, meaning improvements and enhancements are needed to improve access for disabled people, beyond having a ramp installed to help enter a site. 

Mike Adams OBE, Chief Executive of Purple, concludes: “Meeting the needs of disabled customers makes commercial sense for organisations of all sizes, from all sectors, but our message to organisations is: you don’t have to spend big budgets to make lasting change. That’s why we’re urging organisations to focus on improvements that go ‘beyond the front door’. Introducing staff training and improving website accessibility are low cost changes, but the difference to a company’s bottom line – as well as to a disabled consumer’s personal experience – can be significant. 

“Purple Tuesday has more than doubled in size this year, with more than 2000 organisations from a variety of sectors making commitments to improve the customer experience for disabled people. These are long-term changes that will have a lasting impact for millions of customers – and improve the commercial opportunities for the organisations involved.” 

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