Retailers: Make your website accessible or leave money on the table

Only a tiny fraction of websites get accessibility right. This holiday season be sure your online experience doesn't freeze out would-be shoppers.

Retailers are using machine learning to predict which items you’ll return

You want anyone to be able to buy from your retail website, right? News flash: You're missing out on entire segments of your target market because of how your website is designed and coded -- unless you're one of the few brands (just 2.2% of websites) that get accessibility right.

An Inaccessible Website Is Bad For Business

Fifteen percent of the world population has a disability, and people with disabilities have money to spend: Working adults with disabilities in the US alone have a combined after-tax disposable income of $490 billion. Does your company really want to ignore a segment with that much to spend?

As part of my research on inclusive design, I recently interviewed a man named Sean who visited a store's website to buy Christmas presents for his daughter. Everything was going fine at first -- he browsed the site, found toys he knew she would love, and added them to his cart. But then he was stopped in his tracks -- he could not check out. Why? Because Sean is blind, and the retailer, in developing the checkout process, failed to apply the well-established guidance for making websites accessible. As a result, the site was unusable by visitors with screen reader software -- an assistive technology used by visitors who are blind that outputs websites in the form of speech. Sean did eventually complete his purchase but had to call the store and read out every product code in his cart -- an experience he described as demeaning.

Most consumers aren't as forgiving of brands' failures as Sean was on this front. In fact, a recent survey found that 71% of shoppers with disabilities will click away from your website if it is too difficult to use. Plus, most will then pay more money for the same item on a competitor's website if that site is more accessible.

On top of missing significant sales, you should also be worried about legal risks. Retail is the most targeted industry in a growing wave of web accessibility lawsuits, with 48% of the top 500 retailers sued since 2017.

With the busiest holiday shopping month upon us, is there anything you can do fast, in this final stretch, to make sure you're not losing potential customers because your website isn't accessible? Yes -- three things.

1. Provide Easy-To-Find Ways For Shoppers To Get In Touch With You

Own up to your current level of accessibility. If you're not sure whether your site is accessible, then it probably isn't -- a study this year found that 97.8% of websites have accessibility problems. You won't be able to resolve all the problems on yours this month, so make sure shoppers who want to make a purchase can:

  • Make it easy for shoppers to find out how to get help from an agent via email, phone, or chat. And prepare your agents by training them on how to help customers with disabilities -- here's a list of quick tips to get you started.
  • Ensure links to these help/contact options are labeled with real text, not with images of text or with icons. If you use icons for these options, ensure you have alt text associated with each one so that screen reader software can read it.
  • If you're committed to addressing accessibility but know some parts of the end-to-end journey are not accessible yet, add hidden text to the top of your site that will be picked up by a screen reader stating something like: "We're working to make our site accessible but aren't there yet. If our website isn't working right for you, please contact us at [phone number] and we'll be happy to help."

2. Begin To Address The Low-Hanging Fruit This Month

You can begin improving the accessibility of your website immediately:

  • Sit down with your development team and run your most highly trafficked pages through a free accessibility testing tool such as WAVE. This will reveal any simple problems you can begin addressing right away, like product images missing alt text, poor color contrast, form fields that aren't labeled correctly, and headers that aren't properly tagged as headers in the code -- all things that are critical for screen reader users to navigate a site. Fix the problems for "quick wins" to improve the accessibility of key pages.
  • Share an abridged list of top accessibility guidelines with your content creators so that any new content added to the site is accessible -- and provide them especially with resources, such as guidance on how to write great alt text. Challenge them to write product descriptions that are descriptive enough so that shoppers who can't see the product images have all the details they need to make a purchase decision.

3. Make A Commitment To Digital Accessibility In 2020

There's no time better than now to recognize your current level of accessibility and lay out a plan to improve. Take the reins and get the conversation going in your organization:

  • Start with helping your leadership understand the business case for accessibility.
  • Once you've secured support, make your commitment -- for most organizations, this means conforming with the WCAG Level AA -- and make it known both internally and externally.
  • Engage with a third-party accessibility expert to audit your current experiences so you know where you stand and can begin addressing deficiencies in your experience. If you need a list of companies that offer these services, contact me if you'd like.
  • Adopt inclusive design practices to ensure that you're building accessibility into all of your digital projects going forward.

This post was written by Principal Analyst Gina Bhawalkar and originally appeared here.