This year marked a turning point for retailers. We saw the profits of high street darling John Lewis drop 99% and, arguably for the first time, challenges extended into ecommerce as Asos issued a shock profit warning.

The Christmas shopping period – including the January Sales – is a prime time for the sector to recoup some of what it’s lost over the course of the year.

But, when you consider that most shops during this season are packed with frantic bargain-hunters, product displays in disarray and floors staffed by undertrained temporary staff, it can be battleground enough for non-disabled consumers let alone those with a physical or mental disability.

What the purple pound means for retailers

Nearly one in every five people in the UK has a disability or impairment, and over half of households have a connection to someone with a disability.

Their collective spending power – the ‘purple pound’ – is worth £249bn to the UK economy. However, only 10% of businesses have a targeted strategy to access this market, showing there is still plenty more opportunity available.

“We can’t forget that disabled shoppers represent a real, year-round market opportunity for retailers”

It’s not just a bricks-and-mortar problem. The ‘click-away pound’ – disabled people leaving a website because of accessibility – is a lost opportunity to UK plc worth £11bn a year.

Evidence suggests disabled people are increasingly using the internet as their preferred method of shopping and that as a defined target group we are more loyal to brands than the average consumer.

But online shopping is not the silver bullet. Disabled shoppers want to be able to visit shops and shopping centres for the experience – a big part of which is determined by good, inclusive customer service.

What can be done?

When you consider that 75% of disabled people and their families have walked away from a shop or left a website because of poor access and/or poor customer service, it’s clear that much can be achieved through simple changes such as staff training and better signposting.

We surveyed more than 200 disabled shoppers last year. Here are some of the small changes they said would make a big difference to their shopping experience:

  • When I come to your shop, please come over to me and say: ‘Hi, can I help?’ It makes such a difference and reflects the key issue we have heard about staff swerving a conversation through fear of unintentionally offending a disabled person with perceived incorrect language and etiquette.
  • We know additional stock is needed at this time of year, but can you avoid putting items in the aisles as it means I can’t get through.
  • Please make sure the contactless chip and PIN machines can be removed from their case as they should, so I can pay independently. Normally they are placed too high.

More than one day

November 13 this year was Purple Tuesday, the UK’s first accessible shopping day. More than 700 organisations – including retailers such as Marks & Spencer, Argos and Sainsbury’s – came together to improve accessibility for disabled shoppers.

It did an incredible job of raising awareness of the challenges that disabled shoppers face day in, day out, acting as a catalyst for many new initiatives aimed at alleviating these.

While it’s tempting to roll out changes uniquely designed for Christmas shopping or the hectic January Sales, it’s imperative that any new initiatives are sustainable and designed for the long term.

We can’t forget that disabled shoppers represent a real, year-round market opportunity for retailers that can be accessed through simple changes to the shopping environment and approaches to customer service.

The time is now. Not only can retailers benefit from a slice of the £249bn purple pound but, importantly, it’s a chance for UK retail to lead the way and create true inclusiveness and belonging.