How AI Can Deliver Beyond the Buy Button for Disabled Customers

Sean Sherwin-Smith, General Manager, Post Purchase at HelloDone, explains how ecommerce experiences exclude customers with disabilities – and more so than ever during the pandemic. This article explores how innovative AI-powered customer-tailored cummunication can put an end to this and ensure inclusive experiences for all.

A 2019 report from the national disability charity Scope found that the accessibility gap in e-commerce was isolating shoppers with disabilities. So exclusive was the online experience that more than half of people with disabilities abandoned purchases with internet retailers.

We’ve seen the acceleration of digital over the past 12 months. It would be easy to assume accessibility capabilities would expand and improve But in reality, we have seen the reverse.

With essential goods short in supply and anxiety around the virus running high, lengthy queues formed at supermarkets across the country. Home delivery slots were like a golden ticket – almost impossible to find.

People with disabilities were among the hardest hit, unable to access basic foodstuffs and supplies without risking their health. Meanwhile, those that were able to secure a slot faced the possibility of an undignified delivery experience.

We must face up to an uncomfortable truth. The retail industry is failing customers with disabilities. Only by recognising the challenges faced can brands start to look at the solutions available to create a more inclusive experience beyond the buy button.

Outdated Communication

According to research from Citizens Advice, over 7 million customers with disabilities experienced problems with deliveries in a single week last year. The scale of this issue will continue to grow for as long as retailers choose to ignore it.

Customers with disabilities meet a plethora of issues during the final mile. Common challenges include not having enough time to answer the door, parcels left in inaccessible places, and goods not being delivered on time or at all.

Outdated communication methods compound these pain points further, with clunky SMS and email updates often challenging to navigate for customers with disabilities.

Innovation at this stage of the purchase journey is long overdue. And it’s high time retailers and their logistics partners address these issues to drive a more inclusive customer experience online.

This isn’t just about social responsibility. The potential competitive advantage for brands that successfully engage with this long-underserved group is significant. 13 million people live with disabilities in the UK.

Given the taxing year the retail sector has already endured, plus the estimated £16 billion combined online purchasing power held by customers with disabilities, retailers can no longer afford to ignore this pressing issue.

Forward-thinking brands are starting to harness technology to open a dialogue directly with customers during the last mile.

Sean Sherwin-Smith
General Manager, Post Purchase at HelloDone

Sean Sherwin-Smith

Accessibility Is a Right, Not a Luxury

Physical accessibility requirements are often the first thing we think of when discussing the accessibility gap. But the term disability covers so much more.

Brands must also consider customers with invisible or hidden disabilities, from chronic illnesses to cognitive disabilities. When taking all forms of disability into account, retailers risk excluding one in every five customers – a significant revenue loss for any business.

Successfully addressing the accessibility gap requires brands to rethink the buyer journey and how the post-purchase experience is constructed. Off-the-shelf navigation templates do little to target the needs of the individual end-user, particularly those living with disabilities.

People should manage deliveries around their lives, not the other way round. Delivery times and updates need to be bespoke to a customer’s individual needs if retailers want to build loyalty and secure repeat purchases and referrals.

The Capabilities of AI

Engaging with this issue shouldn’t be a choice. Brands must collaborate closely with logistics and technology partners to deliver best-in-class service for all customers throughout the entire lifecycle of an order.

Improved product descriptions and colour-contrasting displays have helped improve the user experience for people with disabilities in recent years. But such considerations rarely extend beyond the button.

Forward-thinking brands, however, are starting to harness technology to open a dialogue directly with customers during the last mile. For instance, last month, DHL Parcel UK announced it would begin offering new accessibility functions through WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger.

Using the power of AI to enable two-way conversations, retail customers can now inform their driver of accessibility requirements for pick ups and drop offs fulfilled by the carrier – via the apps they use and love the most.

This includes a ‘Just a Minute’ option, which alerts drivers they may need to wait longer at their drop-off point to allow customers time to get to the door. Shoppers can also message instructions to leave parcels in an accessible ‘safe space’ if they’re not going to be at home.

Transforming the Customer Experience

AI is a powerful asset for the final mile. What this technology delivers is a tailored experience that puts the customer in the driving seat.

Unlike traditional accessibility options displayed to customers during checkout, AI enables retailers to manage accessibility requirements right up until an order reaches the customer’s front door – removing the need for expensive website integrations.

Not only does this simplify what can be a costly and resource-intensive process for retailers, but it also affords people with disabilities greater control over the post-purchase experience. By empowering customers to tell drivers exactly how they want their delivery made, retailers can leave them with a positive and memorable impression of their brand.

Investing in the appropriate digital support in this way also mitigates the cost of supplementary assistive technologies. After all, customers with disabilities shouldn’t have to pay a premium to receive the same level of care and attention as every other customer.

Accessibility isn’t a luxury, it is a human right.

Rather than viewing it as an ancillary step in the purchase journey – or worse, an afterthought – brands must embrace accessibility as a fundamental commercial driver and benchmark of customer service excellence.

Only when brands start thinking in terms of accessibility-first can they create a truly inclusive customer experience, which builds loyalty and the lifetime value of customers, opening up the full online spending power of their customer base.

Final Thoughts

Customers with disabilities and other impairments continue to face undignified and challenging delivery experiences. This disparity in the post-purchase journey has never been more apparent than during the pandemic.

Harnessing the capabilities of technology to foster conversations across all stages of the purchase journey will be a game-changer. Not only in unlocking the revenue potential of this historically marginalised consumer segment but in empowering customers to take control and communicate their needs to those who can make a difference.

Communicating with customers where they live their digital lives will enable brands to stand head and shoulders above the competition while driving efficiencies in their supply chains. The past 12 months have only increased the demand for an inclusive online experience. And the brands that put accessibility front of mind will be the ones that give peace of mind to customers.


Sean Sherwin-Smith
General Manager, Post Purchase at HelloDone

Sean is a highly experienced and business-driven senior leader with a successful background in operations, growth, product development, commercial and IT – both in startup and corporate sectors. He has a broad range of management experience in technology, logistics and customer experience environments.