The Purple Pound - how to access its £249m spending power

25 March 2019

PwC Research director Michelle Norman looks at how retailers can respond to win and retain the loyalty of the 11 million UK citizens who have a disability

Michelle picture
Michelle Norman, Director, PwC Research

Around one-in-five people in the UK - that's nearly 11 million of us - have a disability. Yet this £249 million annual spending power - dubbed the ‘Purple Pound’ - remains a neglected customer segment for UK retailers.

Last November’s ‘Purple Tuesday’ - the first accessible shopping day organised by the disability charity Purple - hoped to attract 50 organisations to make a long-term commitment to improving the shopping experience of disabled consumers. When the day arrived, around 700 had signed up - from Asda, M&S and Sainsbury's to Birmingham’s Bullring and Bluewater in Kent. Retailers are catching on that this is an opportunity to drive revenue in a flat market. 

Despite this, many struggle to research, understand and respond to the needs of vulnerable consumers, missing out on valuable shopper spend. PwC Research has been uncovering the experiences of vulnerable consumers in their everyday lives, identifying valuable considerations and steps retailers can take to optimise the Purple Pound.

Vulnerability encompasses physical, non-physical and circumstantial factors that are not necessarily mutually exclusive, or visible.  This means that finding a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach remains a major challenge. These shoppers told us that hard to navigate store layouts, inaccessible special offers, cluttered websites with visually-challenging colour contrasts, difficult to read text and a lack of disability-focus were all deterring them from becoming valuable, loyal and repeat customers.  So where do retailers need to focus and what actions should they take? 

Quote for blogThe first action is to appoint a senior-level disability champion within the organisation, empowered and resourced to make changes where necessary. Their focus should be on how to make the shopper's journey as accessible as possible across the whole purchase cycle from marketing to shopping to recycling - both in-store and online.    

The second action is to look forensically at the in-store environment. According to the recent PwC Global Insight Survey (GCIS), shoppers’ ability to quickly and conveniently navigate the store is now their number-one priority, followed by quick and easy payment methods and sales associates with deep product knowledge. Able-bodied shoppers still point to narrow aisles, cluttered floor displays and limited product knowledge, which become even more fundamental for those with vulnerabilities.  

When Sigma carried out a blind shopping exercise in the leisure sector in mid-2018, it found that a quarter of businesses could not accommodate a wheelchair and a third were unable to assist with cognitive impairments like autism. Little wonder then that pressure groups are pressing harder. 

Retailers should undertake an ‘accessibility audit’ across each of their store formats to ensure the shopper journey - from car parking and product location to aisle width, shelf height and font size - takes the needs of their vulnerable shoppers into account. It’s crucial too that staff undergo specific empathy training in order to be able - and willing – to give customers the reassurance their needs are understood and catered for.

Online shopping is also an opportunity. Whilst it represents a growing trend, it is not always readily accessible for vulnerable shoppers. That challenge demands a solution that seamlessly blends physical accessibility and technology. Smartphones are ]almost as popular as PCs for shopping and one-in-five consumers have now used a voice assistant to facilitate their online purchases. A whopping 32% of consumers told the latest GCIS study that they plan to acquire a voice assistant (like Amazon Echo/Alexa or Google Home). With some local authorities running pilot programmes providing smart voice assistants to disabled people and with Amazon reporting 100m Alexa devices sold worldwide last Christmas, voice assistants are potentially a retail disrupter - with disabled shoppers the real winners.  

According to Leonard Cheshire Disability, a third of disabled people have never used the Internet, compared to just 8% of non-disabled people - a ‘digital divide’ of 25% - but technology will rapidly close that gap. Retailers should complete online accessibility audits and use these to identify how to improve the shopping experience - including using voice-driven web browsing and voice assistants to make it easier for vulnerable consumers to access services and shop.

Quote for blog 2Payment methods too need consideration. With digital finance and moves towards a cashless society becoming the new norm, retailers need to make sure these cater for vulnerable customers. GCIS shows that, while over a quarter of consumers now pay for their purchase in-store with mobile payment, fewer than 5% of consumers aged 65+ are using this option, suggesting, at the very least, retailers need to do more to do to educate the older generation around its benefits.

Consider how you can bring accessible and easy payment to your most vulnerable shoppers - what changes does this mean for your technology and how will you communicate this?

Tough times on the high street mean looking for other opportunities to drive retail revenue. Purple Tuesday has started a movement to convince retailers that those who best welcome and value those with vulnerabilities as valued customers stand to gain an edge in the race for greater revenue. With so many tools available to retailers to truly improve accessibility for vulnerable consumers, the question should not be if, but when, retailers can make the shopping experience truly accessible to all.  

By Michelle Norman, Director, PwC Research

(This article was published in the British Retail Consortium's Retailer magazine, winter edition. The whole magazine can be viewed here.)

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