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E-commerce: shopping freedom for everybody?


A large number of society are alienated from the physical shopping experience, which is where e-commerce should provide the ideal solution. But do retailers really consider the physically and mentally disadvantaged when designing their online marketplace?

Shopping – grocery shopping in particular – can be stressful for anyone.

Bustle, noise, overbearing lighting, trying to locate products in among huge spaces with several departments, new-fangled self serve checkouts or long queues for cashiers can culminate to form a less than enticing experience. But consider how this mundane, everyday event might feel for people who suffer with mental health problems, cognitive impairment, learning or developmental disabilities. In respect of dementia alone, research has shown that eight out of 10 with the condition list shopping as their favourite activity yet one in four have given up shopping since being diagnosed.

Last year, the Extra Costs Commission calculated that businesses are losing around £1.8 billion a month by ignoring the needs of disabled customers. Increasing awareness as a result of effective campaigning is making its mark - though it remains painfully slow and sporadic.

Do online stores mirror shortcomings in the High Street?

Home shopping can be invaluable, even empowering, to those for whom functioning in busy environments presents a challenge. But there’s still a clear digital divide.

Discrimination against people with disabilities in accessing goods and services is prohibited by law – and that extends to purchases made online. This means that websites have to meet certain design standards. Yet many websites are not compliant.

Research was launched earlier this year to ascertain how much revenue UK businesses are losing due to disabled customers, including those with cognitive disorders or disabilities. The undertone is clear: if the law does not offer enough compulsion to force the accessibility issue perhaps the bottom line will.

The full results of the “Click-Away Pound” survey, commissioned by consultancy Freeney Williams, is due to be released in the autumn. Its interim findings reveal the sorts of problems users are forced endure. One who has dyslexia said a number of big retail sites have “large blocks of text and constantly moving images that make using the site uncomfortable and exhausting” to the point she has to move to another site.  

More considered sites include features such as easy navigation with intuitive menu options; no unexpected sound or unexpected moving content; no pop-up windows; text descriptions accompanying complex graphics; captioned videos and transcribed audio content. In terms of text, simple adaptions such as short paragraphs; adequate text size; transformability and good colour contrast can make all the difference.

For some groups, internet shopping with its round-the-clock-services poses new dangers. Research now shows that 93 per cent of people with mental health issues spend more money when unwell. Eight out of 10 respondents admitted that online shopping was particularly hard to resist or avoid while suffering symptoms.  As a result, the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute is calling on retailers and financial institutions to help regulate spending. It points out that features that can be problematic are “one-click” purchasing or emails sent during the night when people are more vulnerable to impulse purchases. To avoid this, it’s been proposed that customers be allowed greater personalisation of account settings that, for example, impose monthly or weekly spending limits, or delay processing of transactions made in the night until confirmation in the morning.

It’s clear etailers still have a lot to learn about the internet’s role in ecommerce: how it can be an enabler as well as an excluder. Supporting experiences that reach out to every member of society should be top of the agenda.


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