Customers with disabilities demand diverse accessible concepts

Let’s assess the situation: we asked around the social networks. What do people with different types of disabilities experience day-to-day when they go shopping? We wanted to find out what barriers they encounter, how they deal with them and what they expect from the retail industry.


Photo: Special shelf that can be lowered for more accessibility for wheelchair users; Copyright: beta-web/Lormis

This lowerable shelf was presented at the trade fair EuroShop 2014 in Düsseldorf. Wheelchair users can lower the wanted products to their height by pushing a button; © beta-web/Lormis

"I would like to see that accessibility is automatically integrated into the respective design concept of markets. That means that potential barriers are being identified and subsequently removed," says Vanessa Franke. "Each multi-level store should have an elevator and always provide a ramp for baby strollers and wheelchair users in addition to a (moving) staircase."

The young woman who uses a walking aid in everyday life often even depends on seemingly trivial things. "Even a simple staircase railing makes all the difference to me." That’s why she calls for retail to "be prepared for a variety of customers with varying needs."

Wheelchair accessible shopping

When it comes to accessibility, the emphasis is primarily on wheelchair users. Yet even their needs are often not adequately being considered. Katrin W., for example, tells us that shopping presents a fundamental challenge for her because many grocery stores only have large shopping carts and no longer carry small shopping baskets. "The shelf height is a constant issue for wheelchair users like me. Shopping is impossible for me to do without asking for help," she says.

Norbert Sandmann also reports a similar problem. "The choices of wheelchair accessible shopping carts could be better." He also noticed with dismay that a supermarket chain near him is actually taking backward steps. "Whereas stores still provided the particular carts about five to six years ago, the current design concept no longer makes provisions for these types of shopping carts and accessible restrooms." But Norbert Sandmann continues to actively advocate for the acquisition of wheelchair accessible shopping carts – successfully. "Per my written request, a discount supermarket chain provided shopping carts for wheelchair users near my house and removed an existing barrier by renovating the building."

Many other wheelchair users also indicate that the aisles in supermarkets or other stores are often blocked by various product displays and specials. This is why they usually have trouble navigating through the aisles and sometimes need to take a detour to get to specific products.

Photo: Norbert Sandmann while shopping with a wheelchair accessible shopping cart; Copyright:

Norbert Sandmann likes using a wheelchair accessible shopping cart in the supermarket. But those carts do not work well with all kinds of wheelchairs and they also offer less storage place; ©

"We must stay outside"

And what do you do when store entrances are not accessible at all? While grocery stores by now are often accessible without navigating any steps, many stores in city centers have at least one step at the entrance yet offer no wheelchair ramp. Two-story buildings frequently just have stairs to reach the upper level. Use the elevator instead? There is none! Not just wheelchair users but also people with limited mobility, walkers or strollers would benefit from it. And ultimately, the store itself also benefits.

When access to the store of their choice is restricted, customers who are unable to handle existing steps will simply stay away. In rural areas, it still appears to be common to serve these customers outside the store. The reactions by our survey respondents just for this service alone ranged from delight all the way to appalled rejection.

Sven Neeb sums up what the majority of people considers important. "I expect all people with disabilities to be able to lead a self-determined life. And this also includes shopping." And if Neeb occasionally encounters barriers, he, at least, approaches the people in charge of it. And if a clothes rack obstructs his path while he shops in the city, he knows a way around it. "I clear the way myself by simply moving the items to the side for example."

Photo: Door of a dressing room with the symbol for wheelchair users; Copyright: beta-web/Lormis

Dressing rooms often do not offer enough space for customers in a wheelchair; © beta-web/Lormis

Considering not just wheelchair users

Incidentally, when it comes to "shopping for clothes", many people with disabilities are horrified about dressing rooms. They are often not big enough to accommodate a wheelchair. One young female wheelchair user was once even instructed to simply change clothes somewhere in the corner of the store. People of short stature often experience this lack of privacy even INSIDE a dressing room since some doors end approximately 3 feet above the floor.

Another aspect that is often neglected is the background music on sales floors. Whether you shop for clothes or groceries – you are almost always greeted by background noise when you enter a store. In supermarkets, it is not only music but also noisy cooling units, the beeping of cash registers and potential acoustic signals that can quickly result in sensory overload for people with autism and can turn shopping into a not so enjoyable experience. Bright lighting and various smells also present a problem for many people on the autism spectrum.

And what if things are meant to move along quickly at the checkout or the meat counter because other customers are already waiting impatiently in line behind you? This is extremely uncomfortable and stressful for many. Wheelchair user Chris Robertson mentions the example of a friend: "Many are unable to cope when they have speech impediments. You are instantly doomed if you speak slow and choppy or with long breaks in between." Oftentimes, the staff is not ready for people with different types of disabilities. Many companies fail to prepare their associates accordingly with training courses.

Photo: Magnifying glass on a shopping cart; Copyright: beta-web/Lormis

More and more drugstores offer magnifying glasses on their shopping carts. This is a good service for visually impaired people; © beta-web/Lormis

One alternative: shopping online

There are many things to consider when it comes to accessibility in retail. The needs of many people are almost automatically ignored. After all, how many stores do you know where at least one employee is able to service deaf customers in sign language? And what about visually impaired and blind customers?

"For visually impaired persons, anti-glare and high contrast design, large price labels or the availability of magnifying glasses would make good sense for instance," says Heiko Kunert who is blind. At this point, Kunert primarily shops online to maintain his level of self-determination. "I can actually buy everything I need online – even groceries. The Internet also offers far better ways to browse or discover sales and new products," in essence, Kunert sums up the advantages of online shopping, which more and more people with disabilities are taking advantage of.

Raising accessibility awareness

Many people specifically appreciate the availability and service of employees when they shop at a store. Our survey revealed that although there are still exceptions, there has been a positive trend over the past few years. Employees are said to be far more open-minded and have fewer reservations. "Some companies emphasize good training and raising employee awareness. This is very encouraging," says Sandra Klatt-Olbrich. "Generally, I think it is desirable when employees politely offer their help without being pushy. Having said that, I want more assistance with bagging items at the checkout in large supermarkets and in loading them into my car." An increased awareness in companies and more training can help in this case.

Incidentally, when we analyzed the answers, we noticed yet another trend: saying thank you! For instance, when a sales person serviced a customer without making an issue of his/her disability. Or if a store purchased a wheelchair accessible shopping cart per the suggestion of a regular customer and the supermarket was renovated to feature a more accessible design. Or if employees simply accepted that no help was needed.

When all parties are open to communication and feedback, soon there is hopefully nothing standing in the way of a barrier-free shopping experience for everyone.

Requirements to be met by retailers for different types of disabilities

(based on the received answers; please note that this list is not meant to be exhaustive or universally applicable)

Customers with limited mobility:

  • step-free entrance or ramp
  • elevators to other floors
  • easily accessible aisles
  • wide checkout areas
  • nearby accessible parking spaces
  • bagging and loading service if needed
  • large dressing rooms
  • automatic entrance doors
  • lower or adjustable shelves
  • wheelchair accessible and easy maneuverable shopping carts
  • seating accommodations inside and in front of stores
  • the option of borrowing an electric mobility scooter

Visually impaired and blind customers:

  • shopping carts with magnifying glasses
  • price and product labels in Braille
  • guidance systems throughout the store

Hearing impaired and deaf customers:

  • employees able to serve customers in sign language

Customers with autism or trauma disorders:

  • reduce noise levels (both music and equipment)
  • fewer visual stimuli (for example more indirect lighting)
  • avoid smells
  • provide assortment consistency (and its organization/arrangement)
  • allow sufficient time and space for bagging
  • allow service animals inside the store
  • offer simpler language on product labels
  • provide (visual) guidance systems on premises

Short statured customers:

  • dressing room doors that reach all the way to the floor
  • low or adjustable shelves
  • low produce stands

General requirements:

  • trained staff
  • consideration
  • understanding
  • respect
Photo: Nadine Lormis; Copyright: B. Frommann

© B. Frommann

Nadine Lormis
(translated by Elena O'Meara)