Improving Accessibility: How Retailers Can Improve Online and Offline Access for Customers

A grocer was cited for failing to keep an accessible checkout lane open. A coffee shop was fined for not maintaining clear space on the transaction counter. A restaurant, bar and antique shop, all were cited for refusing to allow a service animal inside. Those are just a handful of retail locations that recently settled with the U.S. Justice Department for failing to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) guidelines.

It’s not just small retailers, either. The coffee shop is part of a huge international company while the grocer has more than 400 locations. Retailers are increasingly facing lawsuits related to ADA compliance and not just for physical locations.

Any business owner would want to avoid fines and bad publicity. But step back a minute and consider the other side of the coin: In an industry where tight margins can mean the difference in survival, better serving the estimated 61 million Americans with disabilities makes good business sense. It also can help future-proof the business; by 2030, 71.5 million Baby Boomers will be over 65, bringing additional needs to accommodate age-related conditions.

Improving support for customers with disabilities is not something to tackle grudgingly—but with an idea of a true win-win.

In-store Accommodations

When done, here is content other readers find helpful:

The ADA requirements for the physical retail location are wide-ranging, from the parking lot to the checkout counter. This accessibility checklist provides a great overview of what’s needed in a physical location.

With those basics in place, consider how delivering a great experience for customers with disabilities can benefit other shoppers as well.

Ensuring that dressing rooms can accommodate a wheelchair means all shoppers benefit from the added space. Moving heavier items to lower shelves can assist far more shoppers than just those with mobility issues.

Reasonable accommodations for customers with disabilities is just good customer service.

A regular parking lot audit can reveal whether there are obstructions along the accessible route, or whether large cracks or raised areas would impede access. While necessary for ADA compliance, this sort of regular check can ensure that access to the store is safe and delivers the right first impression for all customers.

A person with a visual impairment might need a clerk to read a label to them, just as a mother wrangling two toddlers might need help carrying packages to her car. That is delivering on the personalized experience for both.

Build an understanding of serving customers with disabilities into your customer service standards. The U.S. Department of Agriculture published a guideline to help its staff better meet the needs of customers with specific disabilities.

While building a solid core of customer service experts, make sure every employee knows the rules regarding service animals, since that has been a recent area of heightened enforcement.

Online Enhancements

While the physical environment can bring costly changes if remodeling is needed, it also can be somewhat easier to understand. ADA compliance is specific on measurable accommodations. The internet—an increasing area of importance for retailers—is less clear.

What is sure is the increase in litigation. The National Retail Federation reported in 2018 that the number of website-related ADA lawsuits were “skyrocketing.” In August 2018, Apple was sued for its website. The lawsuit claimed that Apple’s website was not fully accessible to visually-impaired consumers.

NRF notes that the ADA was first enacted well before the internet. In the years since a series of sometimes conflicting federal court rulings have tried to apply the ADA guidelines to the internet. The Worldwide Web Consortium (W3C), the governing body of the web, developed its own guidelines for basic web accessibility. These guidelines encompass everything from design and color usage to word choice of headings and link text.

In essence, the internet page should be accessible to all users, regardless of whether they have visual or hearing impairments or use voice to navigate. Use proper contrast in colors and text descriptions of images and videos, for instance. CAPTCHA phrases—designed to block spammers—can hamper those with visual impairments, if no audio alternative is available. Link text should be specific about where it will take the user.

Just as the in-store improvements can benefit all shoppers, these accessibility principles are elements of good web design—and can enhance the online experience for all.


Remember, about one in every six customers entering a retail location could benefit from some type of physical or mental accommodation. It’s a huge audience to ignore. And a huge opportunity to consider. Improving upon the digital and physical experience for these shoppers, however, can deliver benefits for stores and customers alike.

About the author:

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Nicole Leinbach Reyhle is the Founder of RetailMinded and a published author. She is a frequent contributor to The Today Show, Forbes, and countless B2B publications. Reyhle is the Spokesperson for American Express’s Small Business Saturday and writes regularly as a retail thought leader for various industry resources and is recognized as a Top 10 retail thought leaders from Vend and a retail “futurist” for IBM. Finally, Reyhle is also the Co-Founder of the Independent Retailer Conference.

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