New Retail Research Examines Store Access for Disabled Shoppers

By Ed Moorhouse

Carol Kaufman-Scarborough's research looks at consumers with disabilities.

Carol Kaufman-Scarborough’s research looks at consumers with disabilities.

Just getting in the door is not enough.

Although advancements have been made to provide accommodations for disabled consumers to access stores, a Rutgers University–Camden scholar says that’s only half the battle.

“Maybe they can get in and maybe there is a ramp, but what about the rest?” asks Carol Kaufman-Scarborough, a professor of marketing at the Rutgers School of Business–Camden.

Kaufman-Scarborough says there are numerous court cases concerning consumers with disabilities that are overturned in favor of retailers simply because access was found to not be an issue, but retailers are failing to realize the consumer experience goes beyond the ability to enter the store.

“If the aisles are blocked and there’s merchandise in the way and shoppers just can’t get around the store, it’s a signal that they’re not welcome,” she says.

Kaufman-Scarborough’s research paper “Forces for Change in Consumer Access: A Retrospective Analysis of the Hollister Case” was recently recognized as the best paper presented at the American Marketing Association’s Marketing & Public Policy Conference in Washington, D.C. earlier this year. The paper has not yet been published.

The research focuses on a court case involving Hollister clothing stores, which have steps leading to porch constructed like a beach-style hut with an entrance into the store. A federal court ruled that the store entrance violates the Americans with Disabilities Act, which was signed into law 25 years ago this month.

However, in 2014, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the federal court’s decision. The appeals court found that because Hollister stores have alternative entrances for the disabled, they are not in violation of the ADA.

“The problem was that they only talked about the entrances being compliant and they did not talk about the consumer experience,” says Kaufman-Scarborough, whose original academic research about the case was cited during the hearings. “That prompted me to write something that presented a stronger argument. If we’re only discussing the number of doors, or only asking about access, then we haven’t done our jobs.”

The Rutgers–Camden researcher says she sent a group of undergraduate students out to retail stores to investigate the consumer experience. They found that the alternative doors on both sides of the porch were difficult to identify and may be locked from the inside. Moreover, aisles and entrances were blocked by merchandise or were very narrow.   Navigating the stores was a challenge, even for non-disabled consumers.

“The consumer experience is hard to measure, but there are many factors to consider,” Kaufman-Scarborough says.

It doesn’t only apply to retail. For example, fast food restaurants with sandwich assembly counters can be hard to see from a wheelchair, and movie theaters with wheelchair seating in the first few rows make for an unpleasant viewing experience.

“You can imagine the impact that has on people,” she says.

Kaufman-Scarborough says many retailers have misconceptions about their consumer base, while others don’t want to take on the expense of making the store fully-accessible to the disabled.

“Some think that they don’t have to fix their stores because they don’t have disabled customers,” she says. “Well, you probably don’t have any because you haven’t made the accommodations.”

She continues, “Even a fairly simplistic accommodation can go a long way, and you can do it without incurring a large expense.”

Kaufman-Scarborough says she hopes her research — and the research of her colleagues — helps retailers and the courts realize that the consumer experiences goes far beyond access.

A Cherry Hill resident, Kaufman-Scarborough has published various research articles on vulnerable consumers, disability studies, public policy, and consumer time perception and use. She recently authored the book chapter “Social Exclusion: A Perspective on Consumers with Disabilities” for the forthcoming book Consumer Vulnerability: Conditions, Contexts, and Characteristics (Routledge, 2015).

Kaufman-Scarborough earned her bachelor’s degree from Duquesne University, her master’s degree from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, and her doctoral degree from Temple University.

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