Ironically, marketers virtually ignore the needs of one of the largest market segments in the U.S.A. and in the world: Consumers with disabilities. In the U.S.A. alone, over 54 million people have difficulty shopping due to mental or physical impairments. For example, 11 million adults have a condition that makes it difficult for them to leave home to shop, so they rely almost exclusively on catalogs and the internet to purchase products. There are now almost three million disabled veterans who grapple with a host of rehabilitation issues. The Census Bureau reports that these consumers spend almost $200 billion annually, yet remarkably little research has been conducted by marketing academics or practitioners on this huge segment. Manufacturers, service providers, and retailers are leaving a lot of money on the table when they fail to recognize the opportunities that lie in catering to these people!
Obviously people suffer from many ailments that vary both in severity and domain (e.g. psychological versus physiological). Nonetheless at a more abstract level many share common issues. For example, there may be a stigma attached to people with learning disabilities as well as to those with physical deformities that makes it problematic for them to interact with others in social settings. In both cases, there is a common barrier to interacting with the marketplace. Everyone has needs, including basic-level ones such as obtaining food and shelter, but more hedonic ones as well such as the need for affiliation with others, self-esteem, contributing to society, etc. We satisfy many of these needs via our consumption behaviours, but not everyone has equal access to goods, services, or even the shopping experience that itself can satisfy some of these needs.
There are two major paths to address these issues that mirror the directions marketing/retailing are going today: bricks and clicks. On the bricks (physical shopping) side, people with disabilities encounter a host of obstacles that most of us don’t recognize. Sometimes a solution may be as simple as enlarging a dressing room to allow a person in a wheelchair to try on clothing. On the clicks (online shopping) side, there are unparalleled opportunities to provide access to businesses as well as to fellow consumers that are yet to be explored. For example, already in the virtual world Second Life there are venues for people who have serious physical disabilities in the real world to congregate – and even to dance.
Some of the solutions are “obvious,” and they involve fairly simple alterations in store design. Unfortunately it’s typical for retailers to only make these changes when lawsuits bring them to their attention. For example, a Hollister store in Colorado was sued for ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) compliance. Customers with disabilities complained they had trouble getting into the stores and that the sales countertops are too high. The store entrance has stairs and is designed to look like a beach-house porch. The stores have traditional side doors, but there is no sign directing people who use wheelchairs to the doors, which are sometimes locked. One Plaintiff observed that even if the doors are open, there are tables full of merchandise in the way and he can’t navigate his way through. “I can get into the store 10 to 15 feet and then I have had to turn around and leave,” he said.
How can businesses do a better job of meeting these needs? Given the current lack of attention to these issues, frankly a start anywhere will be helpful. One strategy is to identify the “low-hanging fruit” and fix things that are easily fixed. For example, look carefully at a store’s physical layout – can a customer with limited mobility easily access all areas of the store including higher shelves and dressing rooms?
Consider for example how some stores are taking steps to accommodate another huge segment (and one that often overlaps, obviously, with the current one): elderly shoppers. The Adeg Aktiv Markt 50+ in Salzburg, Austria, is Europe’s first supermarket for shoppers older than age 50. The labels are big; the aisles are wide; the floors are nonskid, even when wet; and there are plenty of places to sit down. The lights are specially calibrated to reduce glare on elderly customers’ more sensitive eyes. The shelves are lower so products are within easy reach. And in addition to regular shopping carts, there are carts that hook onto wheelchairs and carts that double as seats for the weary—as soon as a shopper sits down, the wheels lock.
Many people with disabilities understand that they have to be especially creative about finding alternative ways to achieve goals. This is not about “pity”; it’s about working constructively to make these tasks easier and more satisfying. Retailers do this all the time when they put benches in front of supermarkets, or develop iPhone apps that locate the nearest rest room in a shopping mall.
Doing well and doing good often go hand-in-hand: Opportunities abound for resourceful marketers to realize substantial financial profits at the same time as they improve the lives of their target markets. The time is ripe to apply this perspective to the needs of consumers with disabilities.