The store of the future: inclusive design

Many of us equate the future of business with improved technological advances, but what if the key to success is much simpler and more human?
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Shoppers have been promised ‘the store of the future’ for what seems like decades. Occasionally we see high-concept showcases of futuristic shopping experiences featuring artificial intelligence and robots. But waiting for that tech to trickle down to independently owned stores could take a long time yet. 

Instead of focusing on tech, then, maybe store owners should be focusing on something else entirely – a store of the future that's less futuristic and, instead, a lot more inclusive. As Chicago-based branding professional Shane McAuliffe, who is paraplegic, says: ‘Barely any retailers seem to think about disabled people. For a lot of us, shopping is something we worry about and rarely enjoy. To be ignored like this is pretty weird, when you think about it, because there are a lot of us.’

More: A guide to making your social media more inclusive

What to consider

Accessible design includes a huge variety of things. For people in wheelchairs, it could depend on the grade of a ramp, the height of a mirror and making sure floor space isn't cluttered. Or it could mean quieter music for shoppers who are neurodivergent and therefore more likely to experience sensory overload, leading to discomfort and stress. 

Will Pike, who became paraplegic in 2008, says no single article will provide all of the answers. ‘Thankfully, there are now lots of good disability consultants out there like myself, and there's a ton of information online breaking down the guidelines from country to country.’ 

He adds that while the retail industry is making moves as a whole, albeit slowly, to cater to the needs of consumers with disabilities, it's the biggest companies that are leading the way. ‘Sadly, the independents are often the biggest disappointments,’ he says. “Inclusion” and “diversity” have become such buzzwords, but disability still feels like it's at the bottom of the list.’ 

After acknowledging that independents need a lot more financial support to make the necessary changes, he adds that there's another, less expensive aspect of accessible design that is often overlooked – ‘And that's mindset,’ he says. ‘It's not about just doing the bare minimum but about making marginalized groups feel welcomed. Instill a culture of inclusivity. Accept you aren't perfect, take it on the chin and look to improve in every way you can. Even small changes can go a long way.’ 

Good business 

Increasingly, brands and retailers are talking a good game, saying they're ready and willing to be more inclusive. And for retailers looking to attract consumers back to physical shopping, every little helps. 

Acknowledging the concerns of a serious chunk of consumers who find shopping an uncomfortable or stressful experience could play an important role. One billion people around the world live with some kind of disability; in the US alone, 26% of people do

A recent New York Times article charts the sharp rise of accessibility litigation over the past few years. It cites a lack of awareness by businesses around accessibility, and reports that a quadriplegic man in California has filed ‘thousands’ of lawsuits against small businesses, leading many of them to close down. Meanwhile, Purple, a charity looking to reduce levels of inequality for disabled people, estimates that independent shops in the UK collectively lose out on £267 million in revenue per month. 

So, designing stores that are accessible to everyone isn't only the right thing to do – it makes good business sense, too.

A version of this article was published in the Courier Weekly newsletter. For more useful stories, tips, tricks and simply good advice, sign up here.

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