Accessible Shopping: Purple Tuesday & Beyond

The UK’s first Purple Tuesday is coming up, a day dedicated to an accessible shopping experience. Explore why accessibility matters (for more than a day) and what you can do to improve it.

What is Purple Tuesday?

Purple Tuesday is the UK’s first ‘accessible shopping day’, a day of action for inclusive retail experiences that cater to disabled customers. Purple Tuesday takes place on 13 November 2018, ringing in the busy Christmas shopping season. It’s organised by Purple, an organisation that seeks to change the conversation around disability by bringing disabled people and businesses together.

Some of the largest UK retailers have pledged their support for Purple Tuesday early on, including Marks & Spencer, Sainsbury’s, Asda and Argos. They are joined by The Crown Estate and Hammerson who each own a range of retail parks and shopping centres, as well as by the British Retail Consortium, a trade association that represents around 80% of UK retail trade by turnover, amongst others.

Participating retailers are encouraged to organise events on high streets and in shopping centres that endorse and promote Purple Tuesday, and in doing so raise awareness for accessible shopping.

Wheelchair accessible shopping

Accessible shopping (Photo: Shutterstock)

Why Does Accessibility Matter?

I’ll approach the ‘why’ question from two angles. First and foremost, there is a clear social justice case to be made for accessibility and inclusion in retail as elsewhere.

Shopping should be a pleasant experience, but for many disabled people it can often be the cause of distress and frustration. By failing to cater to their disabled customers, many businesses are missing out on billions of pounds and denying disabled people the opportunity to enjoy something which many people take for granted.

(Sarah Newton, UK Minister for Disabled People, Work and Health)

The Social Justice Argument

The latest Family Resources Survey shows that around one in five people report a disability, that is 22% across the whole population and 19% of working-age adults. In addition to mobility impairments, the disabilities reported include impairments to strength, dexterity, hearing or vision along with mental health issues or social and behavioural conditions. While only around 20% of disabilities are visible, all can severely affect how accessible a retail experience is to a disabled customer.

Despite comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation meant to ensure equal access not only to public services, work or education, but also to any business that provide goods and services (including shops and restaurants), accessible shopping is often very far from the lived experience of disabled people.

A 2014 study by DisabledGo revealed a shocking lack of accessibility on high streets: 20% of shops weren’t wheelchair accessible, two thirds of department stores had no accessible changing rooms and a third no accessible toilets, 65% of retail staff never had disability awareness training, and 91% of leading high street retailers didn’t provide any store accessibility information on their website. A 2017 update reported no significant improvement.

Providing an accessible shopping experience is not only a matter of legal compliance, but ethically as important as not excluding people based on their race, gender or sexual orientation. Offering goods and services in ways that potentially discriminate against a fifth of your customer base is, simply put, a terrible look.

The Business Case

For those, however, who refuse to take action towards a more inclusive retail experience ‘because it’s the right thing to do’,  a persuasive business case for accessible shopping can be made in addition to the social justice argument.

The Department for Work & Pensions estimates the collective spending power of disabled people and their families at GBP 249bn, a figure sometimes referred to as the ‘purple pound’. At the same time, research shows that shopping is the top most difficult experience for disabled people in terms of accessibility, followed by going to the cinema, theatre or concerts and dining out. The figures on the lack of accessible shopping provided above are indicative of this finding too.

The busy holiday shopping season further exacerbates these issues, as more than 50% of disabled people are concerned about overcrowding. Additionally, 75% report that they have left a shop because of poor disability awareness or understanding.

accessible shopping

6.1m UK internet users requirie accessible online shopping options (Graphic adapted from Click-Away Surveys Ltd)

The Click-Away Pound survey furthermore found that 71% of disabled customers will leave a website that they find too difficult to use and 82% of customers with access needs would spend more if websites were more accessible. Those who click away have an estimated combined spending power of GBP 12bn, around 10% of the total UK online spend in 2016.

From this business case angle, failing to provide an accessible shopping experience thus looks like a gigantic missed opportunity for retailers.

What Can You Do?

The Purple Tuesday organisers explicitly call for action beyond endorsing and promoting Purple Tuesday on the day. They ask retailers to pledge at the very least one long-term commitment to improve the shopping experience of disabled customers in a lasting way. As Mike Adams, Purple’s Chief Executive Officer, points out,

Less than 10% of companies have a dedicated strategy for targeting disabled customers. Fundamentally, Purple Tuesday isn’t about a single day in the year but encouraging lasting change that creates a virtuous circle between businesses and disabled consumers.

Tommy Hilfiger, for instance, have significantly expanded their Adaptive clothing line earlier this year. The collection features fashion ‘designed with and for people with disabilities’ and thus works for a diverse range of body types and positions while being adaptable to individual needs.

Accessible shopping Tommy Hilfiger Adaptive

Tommy Hilfiger’s adaptive collection for spring 2018 (Photo: Tommy Hilfiger)

What actions and changes make most sense depends on the characteristics and resources of individual brands and retailers, but the following pointers will work for a variety of businesses. Many of them don’t take much to implement but can make a big difference towards a more accessible shopping experience.

Including information on store accessibility on your website, for example, is a good place to start. Marks & Spencer link to disabledGo who provide an accessibility overview for M&S stores (see below) along with a more detailed longer guide covering a wide range of needs.

accessible shopping guide for M&S stores

Accessibility overview for a Marks & Spencer store (Screenshot: disabilitoGo)

Other actions you can take include:

  • Providing the option to buy now, collect later, or buy in store and have purchases delivered home later.
  • Improve store wayfinding with a wide range of people and disabilities in mind.
  • Allow caregivers into fitting rooms to help those who struggle with dressing themselves. Ask whether assistance is welcomed.
  • Make your marketing materials and product presentation more inclusive.
  • Educate your staff with disability-focused customer service training.
  • Write detailed product descriptions for your online shop so that visually impaired shoppers can make informed purchase decisions.
  • Introduce regular ‘quiet hours’ for shoppers with sensory issues, including but not limited to autistic and other neurodiverse people.
  • Employ more disabled people so your workforce better mirrors the diversity of your customer base.
  • Place ‘not all disabilities are visible’ signs on accessible facilities like changing rooms or toilets.
  • Assess and improve the online accessibility of your website and apps.
  • Assess and improve physical accessibility at your store locations.
  • Ask for feedback from disabled people, for example by including accessibility questions in your customer feedback survey or by hiring disabled mystery shoppers.

Whether it’s social justice or the business case that ultimately drives you, whether you’ll include a product line specific to the needs of disabled consumers like Tommy Hilfiger or opt for smaller steps towards more accessible shopping – take Purple Tuesday as an inspiration for some serious thinking about accessibility for your customers.

Featured image credit: Purple.


About the Author:

Nicole Shephard spends a lot of time thinking about how businesses can be more inclusive, both in their workforce and in facing their customers. In her research, writing, and consulting, she combines a critical academic angle with extensive experience from IT and HR roles. Share your thoughts and questions about accessible shopping in the comments below or get in touch with Nicole via e-mail.

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