These days, I wheel into retail outlets (in my wheelchair) and find it extremely difficult to get the attention of any staff. If they do timidly approach me, it’s usually to point me in the direction of the discounted merchandise and upselling is infrequent.
While I don’t miss the upselling, what it says about the retail experience for people in the disability community frustrates me greatly and I know it’s happening to many more people than just me.
If this scene had played out once or even twice, I wouldn’t give it much thought. I’ve grown used to assumptions and low expectations from strangers because of my disability. But unfortunately, this sort of situation has become an all-too-frequent part of my retail experience, as it has for my friends with disabilities.
The result? I’ll simply wheel back out of that store and buy from a retailer who values my disability dollar.
A big missed opportunity
Now imagine my personal example and multiply it by millions. That’s how much money is lost every year when the world’s retailers don’t recognise disabled consumers as people with spending power.
Obviously financial status is very different for everyone in the disability community, as it is for those without. But the automatic assumption that all people with disabilities (approximately one in five of our population) are in some way ‘less valuable’ than their non-disabled shoppers is a myth that retailers need to be aware of and overcome.
Put simply, not valuing the disability dollar is the biggest mistake that retailers can make.
This mistake is bad for individuals with and without disability. It’s bad for your staff, it’s bad for the retail industry and it’s bad for your bottom line.
With around 20 per cent of people identifying as being disabled in some way, ignoring this sector of the population might be a fatal mistake for any retailer in the 21st century.
Furthermore, it’s not just that weighty 20 per cent of the population with disabilities who retailers are missing out on. It’s also the millions of other friends, family members, carers, colleagues and more who base their spending habits on what works best for their loved one or acquaintance.
I’ll exemplify this with another personal story. After speaking at a large conference one day, my colleagues and I ventured out for dinner. We perused multiple menus that took our fancy, then enquired about wheelchair access to the venue. Of my 10 colleagues, I was the only one with a disability or mobility aid so we finally settled on an accessible venue – all because of me and my disability.
Our group spent a significant amount of money that night, which no doubt made the retailer very happy. That money could easily have gone to one of the other several restaurants before this one but remember that inclusion and access in a retail space isn’t just about the single disabled person, it can also be about all the people they bring with them.
Again, this situation hasn’t just happened once, it’s a frequent hurdle whether I’m booking accommodation with my husband, having coffee with friends or even looking for a retail outlet from which to buy my dog food and recommend to others.
And again, multiply my personal examples by millions in lost revenue for retailers around the world who fail to recognise the spending power of disabled consumers.
At this point, I should clarify that this article is not intended to be a hateful, finger-pointing game of shame and blame of retailers. That’s just not my style. Instead, I work to educate and collaborate with individuals, brands and businesses who want to be more inclusive of disability but just aren’t quite sure how best to do that.
I spent the first couple of decades of my life without a disability, so I completely understand how awkward topics like this can be. Sure, there are some bad examples out there but I’ve shared my personal stories of these, not to shame individuals, but so that retailers like you can learn and potentially improve the way you are currently engaging consumers with disabilities.
My academic qualifications and professional working background are in advertising, marketing, media and many things business. That’s one of many reasons I understand the importance of considering things like market share and profit margins, as well as the undeniable moral and ethical reasons to be more inclusive of disability in your retail environment.
Over the coming months, I’ll be contributing to Inside Retail with some simple and practical suggestions about how retailers can be more inclusive of disability in their retail environment, both online and offline.
Additionally, I welcome your questions if there is a particular issue or topic you’d like me to address. You can reach me via my website or on Instagram – both of those links are in my author byline.
It’s time to dig deep
The inclusion of disability in retail is about far more than sticking a wheelchair ramp at the front door. I’d like to help you navigate some of the nuances that need to be considered, should your retail outlet or chain choose to capitalise on that 20 per cent market share while also being a more socially responsible business.
Covid has been such a difficult time for the retail sector and many are looking for new ways to stimulate business. While consumers with disabilities are definitely not new, more of us are realising that life with disabilities doesn’t have to mean we become a stereotype with no interests outside our diagnosis or disability. For me, this realisation resulted in a renewed interest in things like fashion, beauty and other retail experiences of which I consume.
Government schemes like the NDIS in Australia are also making it possible for more people with disabilities to access and engage with the community (sometimes online) and spend with the retailers who clearly see people with disabilities as legitimate consumers.
I can’t walk but I can shop, as can many other people with disabilities and while different parts of our body may not work conventionally, our dollars do.