When Kindra Roberts went shopping for gear for a ski trip, she had trouble finding clothing in her size. When she did find snow pants that fit, the retailer offered only one lackluster color. "I wanted to wear something fun, like lime green pants and a pink jacket," says Roberts. An avid skier since the age of four, the gear also didnߴt match the level of functionality she expected.
The experience led her in 2017 to create Alpine Curves, a plus-size outerwear and hiking gear company for women. The start wasnߴt easy. "We went to the Outdoor Retailer show, and it was very disheartening. I had the door shut on me by [many] manufacturers. A few said they didnߴt want their image [represented] by someone that looks like me."
Unfortunately, Robertsߴ experience isnߴt unique. Retailers often fail to make shoppers feel included, especially in their physical stores.
It’s true that over the last two years, retailers have made diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) a top priority. Companies have committed to increasing representation across their marketing campaigns and business functions.
Yet representation and accessibility are not always synonymous with inclusion. Shoppers are "going to come from different backgrounds, have different incomes, needs, and abilities," says Alexa Heinrich, Digital Marketer and Creator of Accessible Social. "Itߴs important to think about [all] customers."
Brands must ensure that DEI initiatives create an inclusive customer journey. The store experience should reflect a retailerߴs commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Diverse shoppers and the retail experience
According to The Racial Bias in Retail study, conducted in partnership with Sephora and Open to All, two out of five shoppers report experiencing discrimination based on their race or skin color. This includes being followed by staff, ignored, denied discounts and mistaken for sales associates.
Additionally, retailers across categories will take part in Pride celebrations this month. Yet 51% of the LGBTQIA+ community report discrimination in public places, including retail stores.
Shopping can also be a challenging experience for those who identify as neurodiverse. The term refers to the "diversity of the human brain and the different ways people think, process, learn, and behave."
"One place where retailers are far behind is how they interact with disabled guests, including those with invisible disabilities,” says Jessica Michaels, a Neurodiversity Consultant and Coach.
The importance of inclusion in retail
Inclusivity isnߴt only a reflection of a broader social justice movement; itߴs a growing consumer expectation. According to a study by McKinsey, two-thirds of Americans say social values shape their shopping choices.
This sentiment is even more important for younger consumers. McKinsey found that 75% of Gen Z consumers wonߴt buy from a brand that runs ad campaigns perceived as "macho, racist, or homophobic."
For Mon Balon, Founder and CEO of Plus Snow, inclusivity is an opportunity to drive brand loyalty.
"Itߴs the biggest market opportunity," she says. "Itߴs an area [with] enormous potential for growth and social impact. Brand loyalty is up for grabs, and now is the time to make moves."
Designing a retail experience for all shoppers
Heinrich emphasizes thinking beyond a brandߴs target audience. "Your customers [will] be diverse, no matter how niche you think youߴre being with your store," she says.
Hire a diverse team
Designing an inclusive store experience starts with a diverse team. In an article for Business Insider last year, Mita Mallick writes, "Diversity of thought doesnߴt happen without diversity of representation."
By hiring a diverse staff, retailers can eliminate bias and identify new opportunities for inclusivity. "The only people who can give our perspective are us. People with lived experience," says Michaels. "Brands shouldnߴt have to keep us in mind, because we should be in the room."
Invest in training and hold staff accountable
To ensure that anti-discrimination policies succeed, Mallick recommends training all employees, including security guards. She suggests role-playing scenarios to help employees recognize and respond to unconscious bias.
For Michaels, training can push employees to think beyond their lived experiences. "For example, I was at a grocery store that only had a few lanes open. An employee was "helpfully" directing customers… by raising his voice, pointing at each customer, and yelling the number of a lane," she says.
"I understand why this seems helpful. The lines went quicker for sure. However, for 20-30% of the population, this creates [a] stressful, even upsetting situation. Most of us donߴt expect to have a random person yelling and pointing at us."
Create a culture of feedback
According to the Sephora study, 70% of shoppers who experience discrimination don’t provide feedback to the retailer. Only 15% reported discussing their concerns with a manager or supervisor.
Providing customers with options to submit feedback is critical. "For many neurodivergent people, including some autistic and ADHDers like me, getting on the phone is incredibly taxing," says Michaels. "I live on texts, and Iߴm happy to answer that way."
Social media, surveys, and focus groups can also be practical tools for gathering feedback. After a parent raised concerns on social media, the NBA created autism-friendly stores and sensory rooms in stadiums.
For Heinrich, brands must be open to change. "Being a good ally means understanding that you will make mistakes… You can learn from those mistakes and grow as a person and a business owner."
Michaels stresses the importance of setting KPIs to ensure authenticity. "Doing something without measuring the effects often means what you are doing is performative," she says. [Itߴs] meant to look like you are doing something good, but without caring if you are."
Share the brand story
Shoppers want to support retailers and founders with whom they identify. Highlighting a founderߴs story can help diverse shoppers feel more connected.
Think about the local community
Retailers should find opportunities to celebrate the differences that distinguish local communities.
For example, in 2018, Starbucks opened its first Signing Store in the United States. The store is near a university designed to accommodate Deaf and hard-of-hearing students. All employees must be proficient in American Sign Language.
Rethinking the retail store experience: inclusion across touchpoints
Retailers must think about inclusivity at every step of the customer journey.
All stores in the United States must meet the ADA Standards for Accessible Design. Yet accessibility doesnߴt equal inclusivity.
On their website, Quinine, a strategic design consultancy, stresses that "real inclusion is achieved when a single design solution provides access for the total scope of human differences."
For example, Rogers, a Canadian telecommunications company, uses round cafe tables for consultation and payment. This option creates an inclusive experience for both wheelchair users and non-wheelchair users.
Product offering and displays
Designing inclusive products is essential. In its study, Sephora found that 65% of shoppers think stores fail to deliver products that cater to diverse shoppers.
Christina Funke Tegbe was part of the Sephora Accelerator program. Her brand, 54 Thrones, launched in Sephora stores in September of 2021.
Accessibility and placement are also crucial. "The biggest pet peeve for plus-size people is brands who only sell [online]… with few products available in-store," says Balon.
Investing in gender-neutral sections and grouping sizes together can help shoppers feel included. Retailers should also feature and label products by diverse founders.
The imagery retailers use in stores is as important as the products on the shelves. From posters to product displays, a storeߴs imagery reflects the retailerߴs community.
Savage X Fenty created mannequins based on the diverse models used by their design team. The displays reflect a variety of body types, facial features, and skin tones.
Since 2014, Aerie has used #AerieReal Life to promote diversity. The marketing campaign bans photoshop and uses diverse models. The brand features the #AerieReal images throughout its stores.
Sexual wellness company Maude has taken a different approach. The company omits people from product images altogether.
Finally, McKinsey suggests using icons over text in wayfinding signs. Imagery can help those with dyslexia or for whom English isnߴt their first language.
The fitting room
The fitting room can create an anxious and stressful experience for many shoppers.
According to the Center for Transgender Equality, one-tenth of people who identify as transgender donߴt have access to a fitting room of their choice. Retailers should offer gender-neutral fitting rooms to make sure shoppers feel included.
Some people may need help while trying on products. Retailers should ensure that fitting rooms can accommodate extra guests.
Reformation offers screens inside their fitting rooms. The screens give customers options to request help or different sizes.
Torrid guarantees that their fitting rooms accommodate all body types. Their rooms also offer adjustable fans. Similarly, Abercrombie & Fitch allows customers to adjust the lighting and music. These strategies can help customers personalize their fitting room experience.
The checkout counter
While self-checkout can improve efficiency, Michaels suggests offering alternative payment options.
"Some people donߴt want to use the self-checkout. [Some] find them difficult to operate, such as someone with dyslexia who has trouble reading the screen," she says. "Forcing them to do that causes great anxiety and actual physical reactions."
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Retailers should provide services that allow shoppers to customize their experiences. Offering options such as Buy-online, pick-up-in-store (BOPIS), local delivery, and appointment shopping gives customers control.
Target offers "quiet shopping hours" every week. The retailer dims lights, pauses music, and reduces the number of employees on the sales floor. For Michaels, "The key is to make sure that these are open to everyone, not just parents with autistic kids. Iߴm an autistic adult, and I love Target!”
Retailers can also provide tools for sensory relief. KultureCity, a nonprofit organization, partners with retailers to offer "sensory bags." The bags include noise-canceling headphones, anti-anxiety fidget toys, and visual cue cards.
Sephora uses color-coded baskets to help customers communicate with sales associates. While a red basket expresses that customers are open to help, a black basket signals a desire for an independent shopping experience.
Roberts also points out that shoppers may not feel comfortable asking staff questions. Text concierge services allow customers to communicate with staff while browsing products.
Communicate a commitment to inclusion
Michaels recommends that retailers communicate store policies, processes, and how to access accommodations.
"Any customer walking into the store for the first time should be able to [know] what is available and how to access it," she says. "Iߴve also seen employees with badges that say things like ߴI sign!ߴ or ߴAAC friendly.ߴ They may wear special shirts or lanyards indicating that they can help."
Uploading store maps online can also help customers plan their shopping experience. Home Depot offers a "product locator" on its app to help customers find products in stores.
Wegmans launched Aira, an app for customers who are visually impaired. The app provides audio descriptions of the customersߴ surroundings to aid in shopping.
TransFriendly connects transgender and non-binary people with transgender-friendly businesses. Participating retailers can display the TransFriendly Pledge on their websites and storefronts.
Inclusivity starts before your shopper arrives at the store
In a digital-first world, creating an inclusive retail experience starts online. Retailers should ensure that their website and social channels are accessible and inclusive.
Digital tools allow retailers to lead with inclusivity. Plus Snow includes a service on their website called "Shop Your Shape." Customers can enter their measurements and receive personalized recommendations. "We [have] found so many plus-size shoppers have [dealt] with costly returns. We found itߴs better for everyone to get that sizing and fit right the first time," says Balon.
Designing an inclusive retail experience
Consumers expect inclusivity. To capture brand loyalty, retailers must create a store experience that goes beyond representation. It’s an opportunity for brands to express their commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion.
For Roberts, the push for inclusivity in retail is also part of a greater social conversation around empathy and equity. "Weߴre all humans, and we all just want to belong."