Retail Claustrophobia

Suffering from boredom and no longer willing to watch the hometown football team screw up another fourth quarter lead, I headed out to shop.  I don’t know why I opted to go to the mall on a Sunday afternoon.  I hate the weekend crowds, but that is exactly what I did.

I parked and wandered into one of the anchor stores, a large, national chain, of course.  My destination was clear: women’s casual wear.

On arrival I began to wander the different sections looking at shirts, pants and whatever was “in” this season and that‘s when I noticed a problem.  The store was, to a great extent, inaccessible to people with a variety of disabilities.

Many of the folded shirts and sweaters were placed on shelves way above the reach of someone of short stature or a person using a wheelchair.  There were no hooks nearby, so there was no good way to snag merchandise and bring it down.  There were no employees except the ones at the checkout stations scattered around, so one couldn’t even ask for assistance very easily.

I also found the free-standing racks of hanging merchandise were crammed so close together it was difficult for me to navigate between them.  It was even more difficult for me to move through with my service dog.  It would have been completely impossible for someone using crutches, a wheelchair or walker to look at those items or walk through.

This is troubling.  The ADA and the Americans with Disabilities Act Architectural Guidelines lay out with great specificity exactly what is required of retail establishments.  They include the availability of store employees to provide assistance when required.

Here is what the ADA Guide For Small Businesses says about accessible retail design:   “After ensuring that its entrance is accessible, a business must consider how people with disabilities will get to the items that are sold or provided. When sales items are displayed or stored on shelves for selection by customers, the store must provide an accessible route to fixed shelves and displays, if doing so is readily achievable.

If the maneuvering space adjacent to shelves and displays is too narrow, the space should be widened. In general, a 36 inch wide accessible route is needed with a slightly larger space provided at corners. If a 180 degree turn is needed to exit an area, then a 60 inch diameter turning space or a 36 inch wide “T” is needed. The space for a “T” turn requires at least 36 inches of width for each segment of the T and it must fit within a 60 inch by 60 inch area.

Some businesses will have difficulty providing enough maneuvering space between all displays and shelving without a significant reduction in selling space that may substantially affect the profitability of the business. This fact can be considered in determining if it is readily achievable to provide access to all sales areas. If access is not provided to all sales areas, then alternative services such as having staff available to retrieve items, must be provided, if doing so is readily achievable. “

Presumably this retail chain wants to sell merchandise.  So then, why would they make it difficult if not impossible for people with so many disabilities, both temporary and permanent disabilities, to shop there?

How hard is it to make the distance between free-standing sales racks wider?  You might lose a row of racks overall, but by allowing people to see the merchandise more easily you might actually achieve greater sales.  How hard is it to make sure there are available employees to help people spend money in your store?  How hard is it to post signs letting customers know that employees are available to provide assistance and by the way, here is how to find them?

These are low-cost answers to a potentially high-cost problem: making people who wanted to buy things from you angry, because you made it too difficult for them to buy those things; making people so angry they file a complaint against your business with the Department of Justice.

Making a retail establishment or any other business accessible is good business.



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