The disposable income of disabled people is put at a whopping £80bn, but how many c-stores are meeting this group’s shopping needs?
If there was a set of customers with a spending power of £80bn, who were known to be loyal and were great word-of-mouth advocates for the services they liked, you’d welcome them with open arms right?
Well, the good news is they exist. And what’s more, they want to spend money in your store. The bad news is that you might be the only thing preventing them from doing just that.
These potential customers are the 11 million disabled people in the UK trying to spend the ‘purple pound’ as it’s known. Equating to a whopping 19% of the population, it’s a huge number of people to be turning away. And before you cry ‘I can’t afford to put a ramp in!’ it’s worth noting that only 8% of disabled people in the UK are in wheelchairs, with the vast majority of disabilities being invisible.
While a ramp would certainly help, small changes to your store and how you deal with disabled customers may be all that is needed. It may be that you could start with a hearing loop, signage or simply better staff training.
Ian Carter, of Equo, which runs staff training courses, says that it doesn’t have to be about expensive adaptations. “It’s the attitude of your staff and not plonking something in the middle of an aisle that can make a difference between someone using your store and not.”
“We now have six customers with disabilities because the message has got around that this is a great place to shop.”
Harry Goraya, Gravesend, Kent
Carter, who is also director of the Good Accessibility Guide, has created a series of online courses after he realised there was a real need for training among businesses dealing with customers with disabilities. “It’s all very well making sure that the aisles are wide enough,” he says, “but do your staff feel comfortable dealing with somebody with a disability, whatever that disability may be, and would they know what counts as discriminatory behaviour?”
The online training covers legislation and use of language with all types of disabilities, with staff working their way through a tutorial followed by questions. Training can be left at any time so it can be fitted around quieter times in the store.
“It’s not aimed at making people experts on disability, but rather helping people to be comfortable with all of their customers,” says Carter.
While the generic training is open to all businesses, Carter is working on bespoke models and says that a convenience store model would work well.
He believes training is something that retailers need to be thinking about seriously, for a variety of reasons: “One in seven of our population has got some sort of disability. Do you really want to be turning away one in seven customers because they can’t get in or use your shop, and the staff don’t know how to help them to use it? And if someone in a wheelchair finds a shop that they can get into and the staff are aware but not patronising, if the customer finds all those good things in one shop, it’s the easiest decision to make to go back and keep going back - even if it’s more expensive than a store down the road.”
And shoppers don’t keep this kind of good news to themselves. “Social media is huge and if they have a bad experience they’ll share, and equally if they have a good experience they’ll share that, too,” says Carter.
When retailer Harry Goraya, of Rosherville Post Office in Gravesend, Kent, decided it was time for a refit in 2009, he wanted to do something that would benefit all of his existing customers alongside potential new ones, a decision that has served him well ever since. “Before the refit we had one customer in a motorised wheelchair and they always had to park outside and shout what they wanted. I just thought that this was no good; it’s giving them no independence at all.”
As part of the refit, Harry specified that an Equalities Act-compliant hearing loop be fitted as part of the counter, and that aisle widths were compliant, giving customers enough space to turn in wheelchairs, to complement the ramp he already had in place.
So impressed was the Post Office by Harry’s efforts that they have included him in part of a training video. The store was host to an experiment where a blind person, someone in a wheelchair and someone who was hearing impaired reported on their experiences in the store. “It was such an interesting experience and most of the feedback was great,” says Harry.
One point raised that staff hadn’t thought of was that the hearing impaired person found the background music a bit too loud and it interfered with his ability to hear with the loop. Says Harry: “This just wouldn’t have occurred to us so the feedback was really useful.”
The Post Office isn’t the only organisation to recognise Harry’s achievements. The local council often send out people to look at Harry’s shop, including the ramp, to demonstrate good compliance.
Harry says that while they lost a bit of space in the store, it has had a tremendous impact in terms of feedback. “We now have six customers with disabilities because the message has got around that this is a great place to shop. They tell me that in supermarkets, which were the only places they felt comfortable taking their scooters and wheelchairs in, there were just too many people and they were concerned they would run into others. But they can now shop here and feel comfortable doing so.”
Harry says that it’s not only the practical measures that make a huge difference to his customers with disabilities. “It gives a better feel to the store and makes the ambience of the store better for all of our customers. It makes the store very easy for everyone to use. I’ve got letters from people saying what a pleasure it is to visit our shop - and those experiences become word of mouth.”
He says that staff also understand the importance of the changes. “They understand that disabled people are customers who want to come in and browse and shop. They don’t want sympathy; they just want to shop like anyone else. So we make sure that customers know that staff can help them if there is something they can’t reach, or if they need any help at all.”
Bill Menzies of Services, which helps companies make reasonable adjustments to their businesses to comply with equalities legislation, says that retailers often think that the Act doesn’t affect them. “I would reckon if 2% of shopkeepers are compliant you’re lucky. But the purple pound is worth a lot of money and you’d be mad as a business person to be ignoring it.”
The company is planning to set up a website later this year which will detail businesses that offer good access.
“It’s about the whole customer experience,” says Harry. “I wanted to appeal to as wide a group of people as possible. We want our shop to be open to all.”
And as Carter sums up: “It’s about the difference between your store and the next. Convenience stores are different because of the level of customer service they offer their customers and there is no reason why that shouldn’t include disabled people.”
With 10 million people in the UK suffering some form of hearing loss, the chances are one of your customers may be struggling to hear you. Which is one of the reasons charity Hearing Link is sending out volunteer loop checkers to gather information as to how many hearing loops are installed, and whether they are working.
Hearing loops cut out the clatter of background noise for people with hearing problems, making it easier for them to hear in places where there may be a lot of noise, such as checkouts.
The Let’s Loop the UK campaign aims to raise awareness and increase the use of hearing loops in public places such as retail premises. The campaign checks three key areas: how good the signage about an installed loop is; how well the loop works; and staff awareness of the loop.
Hearing Link says the exercise is a collaboration with partners such as the local council and businesses. Projects are running in Eastbourne in East Sussex, Swindon, Newcastle and Surrey, with further under way in seven other areas.
“We would love for retailers to get involved,” says Hearing Link user experience manager Dave King. “If you’ve got a loop, check that it is working. A member of staff with a hearing aid could be appointed to regularly check it is working. There is not only a very strong moral reason why you should have a hearing link properly installed, but persuasive business reasons why retailers should ensure a loop provision works.”
For more details, go to www.hearinglink.org
The Law and you
The Equality Act 2010 replaced the Disability Discrimination Acts 1995 and 2005 and states it is unlawful to discriminate a disabled person by:
Refusing to serve them
Providing them with a worse standard of service
Offering them a service on worse terms.
Providers of services and public functions must make their services and premises as accessible as possible for disabled people, not only physically accessible, but also in terms of communication and signage. Reasonable adjustments need to be made to enable disabled people to use their services. However, it should be noted that what is reasonable for a small business will be very different from what may be expected of a large business.
More information can be found in a free guide at http://odi.dwp.gov.uk/docs/idp/Growing-your-customer-base-to-include-disabled-people.pdf.