Inclusive Retail: How to welcome everyone (and avoid being cancelled)

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Inclusive Retail: How to welcome everyone (and avoid being cancelled)

By Jill Standish - 02/21/2020
Jill Standish
Jill Standish

As society becomes more diverse, we see a shift in people’s attitudes toward each other – and in the language they consider appropriate. Businesses need to move with the times, especially in consumer-centric industries like retail. In turn, brands today don’t just face growing competition and disruption; they also risk being “cancelled” for any insensitive or outdated message they send out to the market.

The flipside of this change is that the most open, inclusive brands – those that champion the diverse backgrounds of their customer base – grow in popularity. In Accenture’s research, four in 10 (42%) consumers say they would pay 5% more to shop with a brand committed to inclusion and diversity. And 29% would switch to a more enlightened retailer than the one they buy from currently. This is good news for the business, as well as for society in general.

Nonetheless, moving with the times can be harder than it sounds. Retail is an industry that relies on a huge workforce and countless customer interactions, across multiple channels every day. Even if the company’s leadership are passionate about inclusion, they cannot monitor every single interaction, and neither should they try. At worst, an employee might say something that a customer perceives as offensive – soon afterwards, the incident goes viral on social media and the business’ reputation is tarnished forever.

So, how can retailers ensure they are providing a more inclusive shopping journey, for all their customers? There are no quick fixes, but our research of 4,662 consumers suggests there are five questions they should be asking themselves, to make sure they are heading in the right direction.

Are we offering products that address our customers’ diverse needs?
To become more inclusive while attracting new customers, retailers could look at their product sets and ask whether they are catering to their customers’ most diverse requirements. It’s worth remembering that 56% of consumers would switch brands if their retailer’s products do not meet their needs.

A good example here is the performance hijab that Nike designed for female Muslim athletes. Meanwhile, in the U.K., Marks & Spencer rolled out a clothing line for disabled children that included discreet pockets for feeding tubes and care labels that don’t irritate sensitive skin.

Do our ads reflect everyday experiences of people from all walks of life?
Across the industry, retailers are building a more authentic connection with shoppers. Some, such as Boots in the U.K., has focused on how its customers feel after using their products, rather than on how they look. In apparel, David’s Bridal has run ads featuring “non-traditional” brides, such interracial couples, lesbian couples and a couple with their baby.

Do our retail channels accommodate different shopping experiences?
It is perfectly understandable for all consumers – regardless of their age, background or abilities – to expect a safe space throughout the shopping journey. We see more and more retailers getting on board with this sentiment. In Japan, Aeon Co. has redesigned some of its premises to make them more welcoming for senior citizens, opening earlier in the day and offering early-bird specials. In the U.K., some Home Bargains stores offer a “quiet hour” for people with autism and their families.

Are our sales representatives fully up to speed?
Retailers are taking pains to ensure their workforces are sensitive to diversity and their customers’ different needs. And yet, as mentioned above, it is impractical to try to oversee every interaction with the public, particularly in brands that have tens of thousands of customer-facing employees.

Even if no offense was meant, it’s likely that – at some point or other – an employee will say something or use language that could be perceived as inappropriate. If this does happen, it’s worth taking action immediately – three in four consumers believe it is important that retailers take responsibility for negative incidents.

Another approach is to embrace inclusive hiring practices. One instance of this is Starbucks’ “signing store” in Washington, D.C. – not far from a university that serves the deaf community – in which staff are required to know American Sign Language. Likewise, 70% of the sale team at west-coast branches of Best Buy are bilingual in Spanish and English to cater to the Hispanic/Latino community.

Conclusion: Holistic, not half-hearted
Becoming truly inclusive takes time, effort and understanding, but it is not an option in today’s retail industry. Ultimately, it’s a question of embedding a more diverse and inclusive culture throughout the business. As with any cultural change, it can be challenging at first to drive change and measure progress, but – as the examples in this article demonstrate – it is far from impossible.

Jill Standish is senior managing director and head of retail at Accenture.