Thoughts on accessibility improvements for retail shoppers

A brainstorm on concepts to make shopping at retail and grocery stores for the visually impaired easier and more accessible.

Thoughts on accessibility improvements for retail shoppers

This last weekend I was watching a video on YouTube, where the host is walking around with his friend who is blind. Throughout the video, he talks about the struggles he encounters while out and about in the city. The part that intrigued me the most was shopping.

During his retail encounter, he explains the different spatial cues he utilizes when shopping at a convenience store. For example, he would use the height of the can as an indicator (which he still made a mistake on the type of drink) and other minor cues. Immediately what blew my mind was the fact that there are almost no methods put in place to help the visually impaired to go shopping – probably nowhere in the world.

I believe there are a few very simple modifications that can be made to packages and pricetags today to enable accessible design.

Electronic retail price tags

Retail shelf displaying e-ink price tags

The first approach can be to upgrade the already existing e-ink retail labels. Many big box stores have already started utilizing these electronic price tags for a few years now – making it even easier for possible adoption of accessibility standards.

My primary option that may work with both electronic and paper tags is to implement NFC technology, whereby the shopper can scan the product and hear a read-out on their personal device.

NFC chips can easily be updated remotely given the proper setup, so when it comes to the electronic price tags this may be a more suitable and less disruptive process.

When it comes to the approach of NFC in paper price tags, the main issue is eco-friendly. The paper tags can only be used once and therefore the NFC would most likely be thrown out too.

Another option would be implementing a playback button to read out the product name, price, sales, flavour and any other information relevant to the buying process of the given product.

Braille on packaging

Placing braille on labels is one thought that came to me that also boggled my mind in terms of it not being standard practice. In the video I mentioned above, the visually impaired shopper, with difficulty, was able to identify a drink he may want to purchase. Understanding the shape or size of the drink, however, doesn't tell you the flavour, brand or even guarantee the type of item you are purchasing without additional assistance.

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Interestingly, Coca Cola had a campaign back in 2015 to include braille on cans – unfortunately, it was a temporary campaign.

Don't get me wrong, there are some brands that do put some basic braille labelling on the top of their cans, but these are far and few in between. Besides, the fact that it's most often on the mouthpiece is just asking for the spreading of germs. My suggestion would be to superimpose the braille on the existing label.

Of course, one would have to take into account the cost and implementation to implement the system, especially for the braille being printed on packages.

Additional thoughts

With the labelling, came a whole flood of other ideas, that I personally don't have a good solution yet – but will leave here for others to ponder. The aisle labels in grocery stores, for example, are hanging from the ceiling, of course not ideal for the common visually impaired user, or even those that are near-sighted.

I understand the reason aisle signs are hanging. The only obvious options are to hang from the ceiling or from the side of an aisle shelf, which in the businesses mind is valuable shelf space. This scenario is not much different from deciding to build an accessible ramp over a garden. The garden may look nicer, but the ramp is allowing you to serve and give equal opportunity to all people in our communities.

With technology today, smartphones, NFC tags and other ways of connecting to the places we shop, it's easier than ever before to implement – unfortunately it seems even with online technology many big retailers miss the mark per the article from Business Insider and the difficulties of shopping online for visually impaired buyers during the pandemic.