Drones that deliver packages, cashier-less stores that handle all shopping aspects with the help of a smartphone app – options that make it possible to essentially do online shopping offline. How will we be shopping in the future? How will this change our buying behavior? These are questions that companies must already ponder today. Yet in most cases, this doesn’t include concerns over how they can make it possible for all people to shop in the future. REHACARE.com takes a closer look at the retail industry, ponders the possible future and highlights projects that already focus on enabling participation in retail consumption.
Just entering a shop is a problem for many people with disabilities, especially wheelchair users. But there are several initiatives that provide mobile or sponsored ramps for shops to make inner cities more accessible.
How much sensation can a bridal shop window cause by featuring a mannequin in a wheelchair wearing a wedding gown? Apparently, a big one. It happened earlier this year in the UK. A Twitter user took an image of the mannequin, shared it on the social media platform which subsequently drew widespread approval and praise. This took the owners of the British store quite by surprise. After all, they count people with disabilities among their regular clientele. Meanwhile, the fact that this picture causes such a stir on social media clearly shows how traditionally underrepresented people with disabilities still are in this day and age – both in daily life and especially in the retail setting.
But you don’t have to venture as far as the UK. Lego ramps in Cologne, Germany, help to make the stores downtown more accessible. The "frank und frei" project team of the "Junge Stadt Köln" association wants to facilitate more accessibility and make the lives of people with disabilities more colorful. The campaign aims to build 100 Lego ramps and gladly welcomes donations of the small building bricks.
AG.URBAN follows in the footsteps of the Cologne project in one of Berlin’s districts (called Kiez). Its "Neukölln macht auf" (English: Neukölln opens up; editor's note) campaign distributed portable ramps and service bells to stores in the neighborhood. The StopGap Foundation from Canada likewise distributes portable ramps to make stores accessible to wheelchair users.
Generation-friendly shopping - and what else?
Small events like these show that people with disabilities are still not perceived as customers whose needs are addressed by store owners. Companies spend a lot of money on marketing experts and image campaigns. Yet people with disabilities are rarely represented in these settings, even though some international fashion shows and a handful of ad campaigns have increasingly included faces and models with disabilities.
Back in 2016, REHACARE.com had already tackled the subject of "barrier-free retail" and asked people how they envisioned an accessible shopping experience. Which of their ideas have been implemented so far? A look back at their wish list reveals that not much has been accomplished since then. The average store in Germany is not accessible. Even though more and more supermarkets have realized that wider aisles and standard automatic sliding doors benefit everyone, accessible bathrooms or wheelchair accessible shopping carts are still not accommodations that are widely available in every store. Incidentally, since 2010, the German HDE Retail Association has been awarding the so-called "generation-friendly shopping" seal to outlets that provide accessible entrances, wide and clear aisles, easy-to-read pricing and signage, as well as special seating accommodations for people to rest. So far, more than 10,000 German companies and stores have received this special seal.
EUKOBA e.V takes a different approach. The Accessibility Competency Center runs the SENSE® LERNladen in Aachen, designed to raise awareness through first-hand experience. The idea is for retail apprentices to experience first-hand what shopping at a supermarket is like if you have a disability. Learn more about this concept in our interview:
Here is an interesting aspect: supermarkets increasingly pay attention to the needs of older people and wheelchair users. Demographic change alone and an increased likelihood of having a disability in old age mean that it pays off for retailers to focus on this group of people. However, people short of stature, visually impaired and blind people also have to shop for groceries or other products. What is the situation like for them when it comes to the average pedestrian street/shopping mile? How accessible are retailers? Our interview titled Accessibility as the Basis of an Inclusive Shopping Experience Concept shows that there are so-called trailblazers out there. However, these examples are just exceptions to the rule at this juncture.
At the same time, retailers try their best to attract customers to their stores and make them linger longer. Especially in times when online retailers make life difficult for brick-and-mortar retailers, stores can score big when they create a good ambience for shoppers. Among experts, this is called point-of-sale (POS) marketing and refers to all efforts aimed at increasing sales – i.e., right at the store.
One should not underestimate the importance of music either. Studies show that the right music has a positive impact on the majority of customers and puts them in a buying mood – provided that it's the right choice of music. However, this doesn’t apply to people on the autism spectrum. And even in the case of hard-of-hearing or deaf people, it would be far more important if the staff was able to communicate in sign language versus having music playing in the store, no matter the volume. And let’s not forget visually impaired or blind people. For them, music tends to be a distraction and makes it difficult for them to find their way around the store.
The Starbucks coffee chain has opened the first signing store on American soil in Washington DC. Only people who are deaf or hard of hearing and who communicate with their customers in American sign language serve there.
What are the industry trends?
Meanwhile, the German retail sector is slow to change. Despite an increase in self-checkouts (cash registers without a cashier where you have to scan your own items), they are far more common in other countries than in Germany, where they are primarily a feature at IKEA. There is also a trend to eliminate analog price tags and implement digital signage and monitors that display changing offers and advertising - depending on the time of day.
Meanwhile, in the U.S, online giant Amazon is not just testing the future of retail online, but also tries to venture into the physical, analog world – at least as much as an online giant is capable of doing. In early 2018, the first Amazon Go store opened its doors in San Francisco – a supermarket without a checkout, no lines and no annoying scanner beep sound. The only things consumers need is a smartphone and the corresponding app. Inside the store, AI cameras and sensors track your every move and register any items you take off or put back on the shelf. When customers leave the store, the system compares the camera images and sends an invoice to the smartphone for the exact items customers have taken. This eliminates both long checkout lines and cash payments. The purchase amount will be charged to the credit card that was stored on the app.
Incidentally, the store’s camera surveillance not only reveals the items customer are purchasing, it also offers the online giant valuable clues about how long customers have stood in front of a particular product and also tracks their movement throughout the store. In doing so, it offers everything Amazon needs to know about the buying behavior of its users, and where there might still be some room for improvement. All of this in the real world because -needless to say - the company has already been obtaining this type of information online for ages.
Admittedly, the type of camera surveillance Amazon Go is using at the moment is still a long way away from becoming mainstream. Having said that, brick-and-mortar retail could soon likewise use cameras to learn as much as possible about its customers. Instead of only using video surveillance for security and prevention purposes - as is currently the case -, it could also be applied for analytics. Information about the number of visitors, the time of day people visit, gender and age and even about their facial expressions and emotions could be obtained with a network solution like the one used at the Finnish shopping center Rajalla På Gränsen.
So-called in-store navigation apps are the first small step to follow in the footsteps of Amazon Go or the Finnish shopping center. The smartphone apps not only help customers to find products or avoid unnecessary routes, they also provide information about the latest sales and could soon also be used for payment. It seems that customers are becoming increasingly transparent, while the stores are turning into brands.
How will our purchasing behaviour change in the future? Are we just doing everything online? Or will the retail trade manage to lure us back to the city centres?
Helping people help themselves continues to be the motto
It remains to be seen whether all this will eventually take hold. At least in theory, we might soon be able to roam the aisles with self-driving, smart shopping carts, study digital price tags and no longer have to leave the connected dressing room because it knows how to directly request the right piece of clothing in a different size from the sales staff. In an increasingly digitized world, staff would once again have more time to focus on service and offer advice, provided that there are still staff members around to do so. Having said that, it remains to be seen whether and how the retail sector will implement these types of settings.
Another concern is how all this could benefit people with disabilities. Small cities, in particular, will take longer to implement these changes. Another question is whether these new digital helpers can actually be utilized by everyone. How user-friendly are online retailers today when it comes to digital accessibility? Can digital price tags be read by screen readers or can they even display product information in Braille? Will stores of the future automatically feature height-adjustable shelves, thus making products also accessible to people of short stature?
As long as the retail sector doesn’t address the needs of people with disabilities, the latter have to take matters into their own hands and help themselves. Platforms like AccessAble (formerly DisabledGo, UK), the New Zealand Be. accessible Initiative or the German open source platform wheelmap.org allow shoppers to make sure stores are accessible before they leave their homes.
The European Union has plans to harmonize the accessibility requirements for certain products and services by law and to create fundamental standards, respectively. The aim is also to achieve cross-border standardization and primarily simplify operations in the retail sector. The EU Accessibility Directivewould subsequently also include the online retail sector, which would then have to meet similar standards that are currently only required of websites and mobile apps of public sector bodies. Apart from abiding by Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, which could apply to all user areas, CE marking to signal accessibility is also a conceivable option. To get this certification, online providers would have to prove that they meet the accessibility requirements. In turn, this would allow users to utilize these stores or apps in a more targeted manner. However, this has not been put to a final vote yet and is still pending.
We can all review the changes that have been made in the retail sector over the past few years and examine how many innovations have actually been implemented and put into practice. But the fact of the matter is that it’s still not possible for all people to browse through stores on the spur of the moment – and that applies to both offline and online settings.
Anne Hofmann (Translated by Elena O'Meara) REHACARE.com
Read more editorials in Topic of the Month's February here: