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Innovative Inclusion: How Retailers Prioritize Accessibility for Consumers with Disabilities

An estimated 61 million U.S. adults live with a disability, and many continue to push for their needs to be served in everyday settings. The retail industry has taken note and made significant strides toward ensuring physical and online stores are functional and user-friendly. Today on National Disability Independence Day (the anniversary of President George H.W. Bush signing the Americans with Disabilities Act), it is a great time to look at the innovative ways retailers serve consumers with disabilities. The digital landscape in particular offers countless opportunities for brands to prioritize accessibility.

The Need for and Competitive Edge of Providing Accessibility

 According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in four U.S. adults currently lives with a disability. Blindness, age-related eye disease and vision impairment are among the most common disabilities, with around 12 million Americans aged 40 years and older having vision impairment — a number expected to increase over the next 30 years due to an aging U.S. population. Yet a 2019 study by Nucleus Research found that 70% of websites across various sectors had “critical blockers,” making them difficult for visually-impaired users to navigate. However, the report noted that retailers like Target, Best Buy and Amazon are leaders in e-commerce accessibility for shoppers with disabilities. 

Digital accessibility is the “process of making websites, mobile apps and other digital experiences usable for people with disabilities.” It recognizes that we all interact and engage with technology in diverse ways. For example, those with hearing, vision and cognitive impairments may need devices or digital features that can assist in navigating websites. The Web Accessibility Initiative describes the four main attributes of accessibility as having a site with perceivable information, operable interfaces, understandable content and robust capabilities. 

Not only does providing an accessible, user-friendly online experience help reach a large number of consumers with disabilities, but it’s also a promising edge for retailers. A 2018 report by Accenture found that inclusive organizations make an average of 30% higher economic profit margins, 28% higher revenue and twice the net income of competitors without the same level of effort.

How Retailers Are Addressing Accessibility Both Online and in Stores

Retailers are becoming accessibility leaders for consumers with disabilities. Brands such as Zappos, Walmart, Target, Amazon and Best Buy strategize site features and offerings that prioritize unique customer needs. This also reflects the dynamic edge that comes with being attentive to consumers’ needs and behaviors.

Walmart launched its Accessibility Center of Excellence (ACE) in 2021. ACE focuses on three key areas: “deepening culture of awareness and action around accessibility; building the infrastructure needed to power accessibility across the organization; and creating leadership champions to engage associates to drive accessibility at scale.” Early work has involved partnerships between Walmart’s product and design teams to make online experiences more accessible.  

The omnichannel big-box retailer is increasing accessibility not only in its online store but in its physical stores, too, joining a growing list of brands implementing “sensory-friendly” hours to create a welcoming and inclusive environment for people with neurodivergent conditions. By offering “a quieter shopping environment” for back-to-school shoppers on Saturday mornings this summer, Walmart hopes to foster “a culture where everyone feels they belong.”

In 2020, popular online shoe retailer Zappos launched a new shopping experience allowing consumers to purchase single and different-sized shoes, with brands like Converse and Nike participating in the pilot program. The offering falls under Zappos Adaptive, the brand’s response to disabled customers’ desire for more convenience and options in finding shoes. 

Its parent company Amazon’s accessibility hub features information on assistive technology, devices and services as well. Its marketplace offers reliable and fast delivery options, making it easier for consumers with disabilities to get the products they need in a timely manner without leaving home.

Overall, retailers who prioritize accessibility have the upper hand. Not only are they tapping into a large, diverse market of consumers, but they are building a reputation as brands that value inclusion in tangible ways. Other accessibility features and steps to improve may include providing alternative text for product descriptions to help people using screen readers, streamlined navigation across the customer journey, clear error messages for users with cognitive disabilities, and ensuring automated captions are accurate. 

By continuously improving the accessibility of their online marketplaces, stores and services, retailers are an example to companies across sectors. Their focus on enhancing accessibility for individuals with disabilities has opened the digital experience up to a greater number of folks than ever, and that is something to celebrate. These efforts help foster a more pleasant shopping experience for customers and reflect the innovative spirit necessary for a thriving market.