The inclusive shopping market may just be the largest untapped opportunity in the e-commerce world today.
By one estimate, it totals a staggering $8 trillion. It’s also not as fragmented as you might think. For example, more than 2.2 billion people experience vision impairments, while nearly half a billion have hearing loss.
As a result, brands need to start looking at this as an opportunity, rather than a box to check on their way to social responsibility. The problem is that the various organizations that set the standards for accessibility, such as the W3C, may be well-meaning, but their guidelines are minimal and often unimaginative.
For example, most of them call for tags to describe images. But no tag is going to tell a blind shopper if a scarf would look good on them. Brands can solve this problem — and I’ll get to that — but not through any metadata strategy.
Inclusive design, the kind that meets people where they are, requires innovation, not standards. It has been the unheralded impetus for some of the most widely used inventions in the world, including email, touchscreens and even typewriters. Innovation and inclusive designs have long outstripped the imaginations of regulators and delivered benefits to people far beyond the intended audience.
Today, we can see something similar developing with live commerce, though it has yet to be fully tapped for this purpose. Like many powerful ideas, live commerce is simple at its core: an interface that quickly connects a digital shopper with a live agent. Brands are using it today on a limited basis to demonstrate products, answer questions and provide alternative options, much like a shop assistant might do in a physical store.
Innovation and inclusive designs have long outstripped the imaginations of regulators and delivered benefits to people far beyond the intended audience.
While not necessarily an inclusive solution itself, if live commerce is combined with other off-the-shelf technologies, it can become a very powerful platform for innovation. To understand why, let me run through a number of scenarios that take it well beyond current accessibility standards. In doing so, I’ll show why solving for the widest possible range of abilities tends to create unintended benefits for all.
Most people today are familiar with live captioning thanks to YouTube, which automatically translates any voice into text. Coupled with a live agent, it can create an experience in which anyone, regardless of hearing ability, can easily communicate with a knowledgeable agent.
Interestingly, when my company piloted this technology in Moscow, a much broader use case evolved. It turned out that subways and other environments tend to be quite noisy, and voice communication becomes difficult. People found they could use captioning during their commutes to overcome this.
The broader applications of such a technology are clear: Whether shopping or not, having the option for captioning can certainly ease communication in plenty of noisy situations, or ones in which people do not want to be overheard.
Inclusive shopping experiences
One of the challenges in addressing the inclusive community is that it’s quite diverse. For example, my company currently works with 16 different advocacy organizations, each representing people with specific challenges. While live commerce cannot solve all of these issues by itself, human beings are much more flexible and adaptable than any technological solution we have yet devised.
For example, some people may need larger images to see better. Others may need the agent to talk louder, slow down when speaking or give them advice specific to their abilities. Unlike digital agents, human beings can strategize with other humans, allowing them to put their heads together on what solutions might work for them. This is a unique advantage of live agents that applies really to anyone, including those with different abilities.
Live commerce also gives us the ability to bring others into the shopping experience. To show how this can work, I want to return to the earlier example of the blind shopper and a scarf. In Eastern Europe, there are free services that connect visually impaired shoppers with stylists who help them select clothing and accessories. Of course, e-commerce would be much more convenient for both, so live services have the potential to connect the two with an e-commerce agent as needed. In this scenario, the agent demonstrates products, while the stylist consults with the shopper to make selections.
Live connections are not only, of course, for the visually impaired. They are also valuable for anyone who needs outside input on their shopping. If you trust friends and family to help you make decisions, you can invite them along on a virtual shopping trip.
Currently, e-commerce sites do a good job of categorizing and surfacing products according to particular criteria. They can help you find five-star products, ones within certain price ranges and even ones from particular brands. But none of them can sort according to abilities.
Such a capability is not too far off, especially if we use live commerce to jump-start the process. Inclusive sorting could begin with a rough idea of what might work or not. Then, the data collected during live interactions could also refine the criteria moving forward. And given that inclusive solutions tend to make things easier for everyone, it’s likely that these criteria could improve the experience for all, not just the intended audience.
Inclusive shopping was never going to be an easy challenge, but it’s surprising that such a large opportunity remains untapped. Until now, companies have too often seen accessibility standards as bars to jump over. It’s time for innovative approaches instead, and most often this means not inventing anything new but rather creatively combining existing capabilities into new solutions.
Today, the technology to bring live humans in contact with shoppers on a one-to-one basis exists. Brands can build on this to greatly expand the possibilities of the shopping experience and bring them not merely to those who need them but to everyone who could benefit from them. Which, history proves, is very likely all of us.