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The rise of inclusive retail: a growing imperative for brands

By Katerina Mansour - 16 June 2021

Within the past year, there has been somewhat of a retail revolution. The Covid-19 pandemic brought many challenges but also many opportunities that have helped shape the future of retail and e-commerce. This industry has been reinventing itself for some time now. From augmented shopping, to phygital marketing, numerous trends have emerged for retailers to shake things up, boost their growth and stay on top of new customer expectations.

Among these trends, there has been a call for retailers to embrace diversity and inclusivity, both in stores and online. In this article, we dive deep into what inclusive retail involves, how and why retailers should implement it.

Inclusivity and diversity, what’s the difference?

Before we go any further, it’s important to define the difference between diversity and inclusivity, two concepts that are closely tied to each other. Diversity refers to the various factors that differentiate us from one another: age, race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, nationality, disability, etc.

On the other hand, inclusivity essentially refers to how we treat diverse individuals. Being inclusive means not excluding people based on factors like their race or gender. It also means ensuring diverse individuals feel welcomed.

“Diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance.”

Verna Myers, diversity and inclusion expert

Why is inclusive retail important and how can retailers adopt an inclusive strategy?

Inclusive retail can encompass a wide variety of topics. A retailer’s website and brick-and-mortar locations should be accessible to individuals with disabilities. Their marketing campaigns should embrace diversity to promote a sense of inclusion in minority groups. Their products should also account for the diversity among potential shoppers.

A 2018 survey by Accenture showed that of millennials were more likely to choose a brand over another if it had demonstrated inclusion and diversity in:

its promotions and offers (70%),

its product range (68%)

– and its in-store experience (66%).

This further highlights the importance of these three themes, further detailed below.

1 – Inclusive websites and stores

Some might wonder how exactly inclusivity can be an issue for websites and brick-and-mortar shops, beyond the latter being handicap-accessible. Anything from the products included in said stores to the promotional visuals displayed online and in shops can play a role. A shopper’s experience in-store will also depend on the shop’s staff and security policies.

In-store experience

With a long history of in-store security profiling BIPOC shoppers, retailers have a role to play in ensuring customers of all races and origins feel welcomed. Shoplifting policies should focus on behaviour, not on race. Furthermore, cultivating a diverse workforce can help in-store customers feel more represented.

The presentation and layout of a brick-and-mortar location can also have an impact. Inclusivity could mean showcasing diverse people in the promotional images in-store. When a customer walks in and sees models that look like them, they are more likely to be able to identify with one of the campaigns on display. Furthermore, products such as plus-size clothing should be clearly on display rather than hidden in a corner behind everything else. The overall idea here is simply to ensure the store layout and design showcases diversity through and through to make all customers equally comfortable when shopping.

One interesting example of an inclusive in-store experience is British supermarket chain Morrisons. The company introduced a ‘quieter hour’ in 2018 to improve the shopping experience for autistic consumers. This involves measures like dimming the lights, turning music/radio off, avoiding announcements, turning checkout beeps and other electrical noises down.

Online experience

In terms of online shopping, retailers must ensure their websites meet accessibility needs. Freeney Williams, a disability and diversity consultancy, estimated that UK retailers lose an estimated £17 billion per year by not meeting the needs of disabled online shoppers. Research further supports this conclusion by showing disabled online consumers will leave a website if they find it difficult to use. Indeed, a 2019 survey from Click-Away Pound showed 75% of participants have chosen to pay more for a product from an accessible website rather than buy the same product from a less accessible website.

Retailers can ensure their websites are accessible by adopting a variety of small changes. Any videos on the site should include captions for those who might have impaired hearing. Using bold typefaces and large text can also be more user-friendly for those that are visually impaired. Keyboard-based navigation, search by voice and alt tags are all options that can help improve a site’s accessibility to those with disabilities.  

2 – Inclusive marketing campaigns

Dove's 'Real Beauty' campaign
A campaign by the cosmetics and hygiene company Dove featured a group of women that was diverse in terms of ages, races and body types represented.

Marketing campaigns and PR backlash

Big brands have faced backlash for their lack of inclusivity, namely in the fashion industry. Victoria’s Secret stands out as a prominent recent example. The company has repeatedly been accused of perpetuating dangerous stereotypes and lacking any form of diversity. Indeed, the lack of plus-size models in addition to the former CEO’s remarks about transgender models not having their place in the brand’s fashion show, struck a nerve for many consumers.

There are several other examples of diversity faux-pas in marketing campaigns that illustrate the importance of inclusivity in retail. In 2019, Dolce & Gabbana faced significant backlash for an ad that involved a Chinese woman trying to eat Italian food with chopsticks. Perceived as stereotypical and racist, the ad had dire effects on the brand’s popularity in China.

These consumer responses reflect increased awareness of diversity and inclusivity issues. They also reflect consumers’ desire for inclusive marketing.

Calls for more representation in ad campaigns

In the beauty space, demand for inclusivity both in terms of product ranges and ad campaigns is as strong as ever. White and petite females have been the go-to body types for ad campaigns in this industry. However, alongside changes in the inclusivity of product ranges (e.g. Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty line), are also demands for marketing campaigns that more accurately represent consumers’ diversity.

A step forward in this area has been the inclusion of men in beauty. CoverGirl made the news worldwide in 2016 for including its first-ever male CoverGirl, aka a brand ambassador for the company. Some brands have also made marketing efforts to be more inclusive of LGBTQ+ communities. For example, Superdrug launched a range of period-care products whose packaging and marketing efforts target ‘persons who menstruate’ rather than women, in an effort to be inclusive of non-binary and trans consumers.

While the fashion and beauty industries have been at the heart of calls for more inclusivity, this demand for change extends to all consumer-oriented sectors. Over 75% of Gen Z consumers say they will end a relationship with a brand that runs ad campaigns perceived as being macho, racist or homophobic. On the flip side, feeling represented in an ad campaign by a brand can boost sales. According to a 2019 Think with Google survey, 69% of black consumers are more likely to purchase from a brand with advertising that positively reflects their race/ethnicity.

Awareness is growing but change is slow to come

While marketers increasingly agree diversity and inclusion are key, there is still a lot of progress to make. A Facebook study showed that 54% of consumers don’t feel fully represented in online ads. This sentiment is echoed by several studies showing there is still a huge lack of inclusivity in ad campaigns. A 2019 Heat Test Report showed that one in four people have a disability, yet only 1% of ads represent them. Furthermore, while more women are being included in ads, their role in said ads can be problematic. Indeed, many of them involve stereotypes around gender roles (the empathetic mom, devoted wife, etc).

3 – Inclusive products

In 2017, Rihanna launched what is now considered to be one of the most inclusive beauty brands in the industry: Fenty Beauty. Starting off with a 40 shade-range foundation (which is now 50), she made waves in the industry and set the bar for other beauty brands. Indeed, shade ranges have been an issue in the beauty community for quite some time. Numerous brands have faced backlash for product lines that only included shades tailored to fair skin. These beauty ranges often just offer one or two options for consumers with a darker complexion.

Rihanna's Fenty Beauty shade range

The beauty industry is also slowly introducing products inclusive of consumers with disabilities. One recent example is Selena Gomez’s new beauty line, Rare Beauty. The company’s packaging makes applying the products easier for those with limited joint movement.

On the fashion side, offering a wider selection of sizes has been a key trend over the past decade. Retailers are broadening available options so that plus-size consumers can find what they need.

Inclusivity also has its place in packaging. While some packaging includes brail, visually impaired consumers can also benefit from embossed lettering or tactile markers on packaging. One example of this is Proctor & Gamble’s Herbal Essences hair care brand. The brand includes tactile lines or dots on the top of its shampoo and conditioner bottles. This enables visually impaired consumers to differentiate the bottles. Four lines is the shampoo, two rows of dots is the conditioner.

Other examples of inclusivity across industries include Microsoft’s Xbox Adaptive Controller for users with limited limb mobility and Degree’s inclusive deodorant for consumers with visual impairment and upper limb motor disabilities (hooked design for one-hand usage, magnetic closures, enhanced grip placement and a braille label).

Startups embracing or enabling inclusive retail

Inclusive retail doesn’t only concern big brands. Indeed, many retail startups and SMEs have made inclusivity a part of their brand DNA. Some startups have also developed tools and technologies to help retail brands become more inclusive.

Here are a few notable examples from Early Metrics’ database of over 35,000 qualified startups:

  • Stark develops a toolkit to help designers and developers create accessible products for the visually impaired
  • Lalaland develops AI-powered hyper-realistic digital models for online retailers to showcase clothing on diverse models more easily
  • Kohl Kreatives develops patented makeup brushes with an easy-to-grip handle that stand on their own, catering to users with motor disabilities
  • Jecca Blac creates gender-free beauty products
  • Authored Apparel designs adaptive clothing for the elderly and disabled
  • AccessiBe develops an automated web accessibility solution to help websites easily cater to consumers with a wide range of disabilities

Overall, embracing inclusivity will inevitably play a role in the growth and success of retailers in the coming years. With the growing availability of products and solutions to tackle inclusivity, consumer awareness is rising, as are their expectations. As such, this is likely not the last time you’ll be reading about inclusive retail and its importance.

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