Irish Retail Battle for Autism Friendliness

Shortly after SuperValu had launched their Autism-Friendly Shopping project – following an 18 months development and piloting journey – their competitor, Lidl, followed with Autism Aware Quiet Evenings. Hefty backlash over an incident showed Lidl the shape of the learning curve companies need to follow in order to tap into diverse market segments.

Basic accessibility today is a no-brainer, in public spaces and stores and also with regard to the huge opportunities provided by new technologies. These are described in a new report by tech consulting firm Accenture. They calculated that ‘new technologies have the potential to bring an estimated 350 million people with disabilities into the workforce over the next 10 years’. What is needed is to keep accessibility in mind when starting to think about new developments (along other diversity aspects). Accenture provides an overview of five key areas to create more positive experiences for people with disabilities and lead a people-centric digital revolution. Universal design, Artificial Intelligence, wider partnerships, talent market and new industries. Customers with a disability, however, are only mentioned in a brief aside.

One of the reports about the market segment ‘disability’ can be found here.

The extent to which differently abled market segments are marginalised, e.g. by the retail or hospitality industries, is illustrated by the campaign

Help me spend my money

launched by the social enterprise Purple in 2017. According to UK research, shopping, eating and drinking out rank in the top three most difficult experiences for disabled persons. U.S. figures show that they are also three times more likely that people without a disability to never go online compared to people without (23% vs. 8%).

A projection for Europe can be found here.

Experts recommend that companies need to do a proper journey mapping to understand customers with a disability in order to then be able to respond to their needs – and eventually benefit a much larger clientele (‘from the margin to the mainstream’), as countless examples have shown in the past.

First steps to create Autism friendliness in Irish retail stores

For many, the predominant image of accessibility includes wheelchair access, accessible web technologies and sometimes braille language. The challenges, e.g., of people with autism, in everyday situations such as shopping are as significant as they are unknown to many. Noise, light, crowdedness and other elements can create stress, often to extreme extents. The Irish retail chain SuperValu started in 2016 a step-by-step learning journey and development process to assist customers with autism in shopping at their stores. Initial steps included

  • Autism-friendly shopping times (quieter, low lights, fast track till)
  • Introduction of Autism Lifeskill Fried (ALF) trolleys (clipboard for images of articles to buy plus a ‘finished’ box so that children with autism can focus on something and partake in the shopping)

The retail chain worked with subject matter expert partners such as Middletown Centre for Autism and AsIAm to develop additional supports including

  • Sensory Store Maps -  indicating high intensity, low intensity areas in store
  • Photos of store – visualise the store trip before you visit
  • Store sounds – download and listen to get familiar with our store sounds

A dedicated webpage makes these items available and provides additional explanations.

Lidl Ireland’s bumpy catch-up

SuperValu’s competitor, Lidl Ireland, also carried out tests and pilots in 2017 and announced in March 2018 that they will offer Autism Aware Quiet Evenings across all their 194 stores in Ireland and Northern Ireland starting 2 April, World Autism Day. In addition to reduced lighting, no music, priority queuing and lowered till scan sounds they offer extra assistance upon request. The Irish Equality Status act already requires stores to allow autism assistance dogs (similar to dogs assisting blind people). Lidl also announced that they will train all store teams ‘to gain a greater understanding of autism (…)’. An incident just prior to the retailer’s announcement had made headlines and showed the need for such information. A woman, her son who has autism and his specially trained autism assistance dog were asked to leave a Lidl store in Dublin. This had happened despite explanations about the situation and needs, and the dog wearing an official Guido Dogs blue jacket. Lidl Ireland quickly sent their ‘unreserved’ apology.

D&I change process: Accepting the need to be on the journey together

Not only in the field of disability but in the D&I arena at large, it has become important for everyone involved to understand the need to learn and grow together. The breadth and depth of what needs to be understood and addressed is typically a lot larger than what people think. And more complex than many of the cool solutions suggest that are presented online or at events.

An overview of current D&I issues can be found here

Hence, along the development process, everyone involved will have their learning moments and this should include those who see themselves in the know (e.g. due to personal involvement). A careful analysis of all your customer touchpoints, starting from very early communication all the way to potential moments of truth and follow-up contacts will provide an impression of what companies should consider when planning to include diverse costumers more consciously.

Such a more thorough approach – beyond nice initiatives or projects – is likely to show how your business – and customer base – at large can benefit from intelligent Inclusion. It will also connect D&I in a comprehensive way with the larger strategic roadmap of digital future, which Accenture describes in their Report related to accessibility, and which we can see for the wider D&I topic as well.