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Brand Purpose E-commerce Accessibility

E-commerce is failing disabled people, say experts


By Ellen Ormesher, Senior Reporter

September 26, 2022 | 8 min read

65% of consumers with a disability have abandoned a purchase due to poor accessibility. For our Evolution of E-commerce Deep Dive, accessibility experts from across the marketing industry tell us what needs to be done.

Accessible design

Just 98% of websites meet basic accessibility needs/ Image via Unsplash

At its core, e-commerce should be something that removes the barriers to a shopping experience for everyone, says Dom Hyans, head of strategy at specialist disability and inclusion marketing agency Purple Goat. “Unfortunately, though. many people are doing it badly.”

The figures speak for themselves. According to an evaluation of over a million websites carried out by accessibility specialists WebAim, 98% don't meet basic accessibility needs.

Hyans says the issue is that brands are so focused on “designing websites that look beautiful from a brand perspective“ that the experience for someone who uses accessibility software is just not being considered. “That might be screen readers or text magnifiers, or even something as simple as image tagging and captioning; different things that people might utilize to improve their experience haven’t been considered at all.”

Debbie Ellison, the global chief digital officer at VMLY&R Commerce, agrees that: “There is nothing worse than wanting to buy from a brand you believe to have similar values around inclusivity and then when you click to buy, the customer experience doesn’t meet expectations.”

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Moving forward

There have been some developments in recent years, says Hyans. “There was, as we know, a shift to online out of necessity during the pandemic. Places like grocery retail really stepped up, creating things like priority slots – which, of course, had their flaws in the beginning but as a concept were really good.”

He also praises HSBC for the work it has done on its web platform and customer interface. (Ellison isn’t quite so favorable to brands, saying: “Honestly, I think that beyond government and public service sites such as LNER, the focus on creating accessible e-commerce sites has been lost.”)

The shoppable aspect of e-commerce platforms isn’t the only barrier to accessibility, stresses Hyans. “What if I have a question about an item? Or it’s not so easy for me to make returns in the way a brand is asking? Are there alternate ways for me to not just shop but also to interact with a brand?”

Spending power

Ellison predicts that, as purchase decisions (especially by younger generations) become further influenced by brand values, there will be demand to see demonstrable efforts to deliver inclusive experiences and this lack of focus will be at brands’ peril. “Stats show that people aged 64 and above will make up 24% of the UK population by 2043, which is projected to be 17.4m people in total, and as we get older we’re all increasingly likely to experience sight loss.”

Marianne Waite, the director of inclusive design at Interbrand, cites a recent piece of research conducted by the agency that found 73% of consumers are touched by disability and yet 75-80% of customer experiences are deemed to be a failure by people with a disability.

As Waite puts it: “Despite a $13tn opportunity, most businesses are failing to meet the expectations of this market. Replace ‘disabled consumers’ with ‘female consumers’ and you begin to see how unacceptable this is.”

She believes the biggest challenges to widespread inclusivity are attitudes and biases. “We’ve seen a lot of well-meaning inclusive endeavors veer into corporate saviorism, which can often do more harm than good. Considering the expectations of the disabled market should not be seen as a ‘cute thing to do’. It should evoke no more altruistic feelings than considering the needs of female consumers does, and yet many of us are stuck in the mindset that doing so is ‘above and beyond’, when it’s just good consumer-centric business development.”

Taking action

Ellison says that to combat this issue there are guidance tools provided by the W3C Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) – an international standard designed to help make websites and apps more accessible and usable for everyone, including people who are visually impaired, blind or where English isn’t a first language.

She adds: “In my experience, it’s crucial to test e-commerce sites and apps to ensure functionality is available from a keyboard and not just a mouse, that navigation and content can be readable by screen readers and that color contrast between background and foreground is strong enough for people who are visually impaired.”

Brands should, however, be cautious of only involving disabled customers during the testing phase, says Waite. “Our partnership with The Research Institute for Disabled Consumers allows us to help clients ensure that they are working with diverse consumer groups across the entire go-to-market process, from the insights phase, through research and development, all the way through to marcomms.”

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Making the platforms of retail brands accessible is just the beginning, however, says Hyans. “Representation on those sites, particularly in the fashion space, is also a conversation we need to be having. If we’re not seeing representation for people with a disability, do they feel like a potential customer?”

Quite aside from their spending power, Hyans describes disabled customers as “extremely loyal”, so it’s in a brand’s interest to engage with them and not to perpetuate society’s ableism by seeing them “as a drain, but a revenue stream”.

For more on the Evolution of E-commerce, check out The Drum’s latest Deep Dive.

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