Marketers fall all over themselves in the race to attract members of different market segments such as overlooked ethnic subcultures. Ironically, they virtually ignore the needs of one of the largest market segments out there: consumers with disabilities. The Census Bureau reports that there are 54 million disabled adults who spend almost $200 billion annually, yet companies pay remarkably little attention to the unique needs of this vast group. You’re leaving a lot of money on the table if you fail to recognize the many opportunities to meet the needs of this large and growing segment. Many of us have family members or friends who find it challenging to navigate the marketplace, or we may be in that situation ourselves. Yet precious little is done to address these issues. Along with related challenges such as food deserts that limit the availability of nutritional and affordable food and illiteracy that prevents many adults from interacting with businesses, this general issue of market access is a major policy issue when we look at consumer behavior.
Consider this: Fully 11 million U.S. 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. Many people have limited mobility and are unable to gain easy access to stores, entertainment venues, educational institutions and other locations. People who rely on wheelchairs for mobility often encounter barriers when they try to enter stores, move around the aisles, or enter dressing rooms that are too narrow to accommodate a chair. Others have mental illnesses, such as excessive anxiety in public places. These issues touch many of us. For example, more than 30% of Vietnam veterans and 20% of Iraqi war veterans have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
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 behaviors, but not everyone has equal access to goods, services or even the shopping experience that itself can satisfy some of these needs.
How can businesses do a better job of meeting the shopping needs of these consumers? 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? Sometimes a solution may be as simple as enlarging a dressing room to enable a person in a wheelchair to try on clothing.
Unfortunately some retailers make these changes only when lawsuits compel them to do so. For example, customers sued a Hollister store in Colorado for failure to comply with ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) guidelines. They complained they had trouble getting into the store and that the sales countertops were too high. The store entrance was designed to look like a beach-house porch so there was no ramp available. Side doors that were accessible lacked signage and were sometimes locked. After six years of litigation, A&F agreed to make appropriate adjustments.
Rather than engaging in costly retrofitting, some retailers might want to start the design process with the needs of disabled shoppers in mind. Consider the Adeg Aktiv Markt 50+ in Salzburg, Austria, Europe’s first supermarket for shoppers older than age 50 that opened 15 years ago. 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.
In addition there are overlooked opportunities in product development. For example, as the number of wheelchair users grows by over two million people per year in the U.S. alone, the market for adaptive clothing that provides a broader range of apparel options grows as well. Fashion designer Tommy Hilfiger launched a children’s collection that includes modified closures, adjustability and alternate options to get in and out of the garments. Several other startups are entering the space, but it’s still relatively uncharted territory.
Many people with disabilities understand that they have to be especially creative about finding alternative ways to achieve their everyday 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. Scoop your profits off the table, and make a lot of people happy.
My latest book is Marketers, Tear Down These Walls! Liberating the Postmodern Consumer.
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Forbes June 28, 2018
Michael Solomon, Ph.D.