Coronavirus: information and updates

Supermarkets, the pandemic and the future for disabled customers

Buying food and essentials should be an easy experience, free from barriers. But for disabled people, supermarket shopping presents challenges. We look at the impact the coronavirus pandemic has had on disabled people’s shopping experiences.

This report highlights the range of barriers that disabled customers have experienced over the last year, both online and in store. 

Research findings

Our research highlighted some priority concerns about disabled people’s access to food and shopping at supermarkets.

Shopping in store

  • Disabled customers are less comfortable shopping in-store than they were before the pandemic.
  • a third of disabled people feel ‘apprehensive’ or ‘uncomfortable’ about shopping in-store.
  • 71% of disabled people changing where they shopped due to their negative experiences.
  • only 51% of people feel comfortable asking for help from staff in-store. Compared to 67% before the pandemic. 1 in 5 people do not ask supermarket staff for assistance even if they need help.

(Source: Opinium polling May 2021)

Shopping online

  • Just under half (45%) of disabled people surveyed said they experienced accessibility issues with the supermarket’s website or app when buying food online.
  • Many of the supermarket coronavirus policies made ordering food online difficult or no longer possible. Like delivering shopping without plastic bags and drivers not bringing shopping into homes.

(Source: Big Hack crowdsourcing data)

Buying food and essentials online

Before the pandemic, disabled people regularly faced accessibility issues when shopping online, such as:

  • poor colour contrast
  • poor website navigation
  • pop-ups and adverts

But many disabled people said that the pandemic made online shopping much harder for them.

58% of calls to our helpline in May 2020, were about difficulty getting food and essentials.

Deliveries and increased demand

The number of disabled people shopping online increased by 20% during the pandemic. (Source: Opinium Polling May 2021).

Supermarkets tried to reach the demand by:

  • increasing the number of delivery slots available, and
  • introducing priority slots for people in the Governments ‘Clinically Extremely Vulnerable’(CEV) list .

Customers who relied on online shopping for food and essentials for years now found themselves unable to get deliveries.

I've used online shopping for years and I’m used to booking my slots regularly. But I've only managed to get a handful since COVID. As I am housebound, this has been problematic.

Mike (mental health condition)

Others were forced to change where they shop to get a delivery slot.

Priority delivery slots

Priority slots were welcomed by people on the CEV list. But people who did not fit the criteria for priority delivery slots found it harder to get deliveries. Some even felt forgotten.

 

Give priority to customers with issues that prevent them from accessing their shops other than online. When lockdown came, I was forgotten and had no chance of getting an online delivery slot.

Emily (mobility impairment)

1 in 5 (20%) disabled people said they would like priority slots to remain in place after the pandemic. (Opinium Poll May 2021)

Increased delivery charges and minimum spend requirements.

Our extra costs research tells us that disabled people face costs of £583 a month more than non-disabled people. (Source: Scope’s Disability price tag policy report 2019).

Minimum spending requirement for delivery resulted in disabled people having to pay more. Especially those living on their own.

Supermarkets] are now starting to charge for delivery if you don't spend £40. In no way can I afford £40 a week. The spend for click and collect is £25, and I am not even sure of spending that amount.

Robert (hearing impairment)

I live alone and therefore do not need a large amount of shopping and do not reach minimum spend for delivery. I have mental health and social issues and often feel anxious and unable to go shopping. So, home delivery could be a lifeline, but I can’t afford it. Nor do I need a large shop to reach the minimum delivery amount.

Daniel (mental health condition)

Poor customer service

We also found issues with customer service. This was particularly noticeable in the delivery process.

Disabled people said that despite relying on assistance from delivery drivers to bring their shopping into their homes, help is not always provided.

Often requirements requested by a disabled customers were not communicated to the delivery driver effectively.

Their experiences were inconsistent and depended on the delivery driver.

Maybe they should have a form attached to your account that you can complete which explains which disabilities you have, or they ask you at the checkout whether you’re disabled and if you need assistance. The driver would then be aware of any problems before they arrive. It takes me a while to get to my door and time seems to be very limited for delivery drivers. A more flexible attitude towards disabled people is overdue

Rima (mental health condition)

Supermarkets stopping the use of plastic bags

During lockdown, many supermarkets announced they would not use plastic bags with their online orders.

Many disabled people rely on deliveries in bags, as this is easier for them to get their shopping in to their homes

I have had part of my spine fused. I cannot now, and never will be able to, bend over and pick up Sainsbury’s shopping out of a crate on the floor, then put it all into bags, item by item.

Michael (mobility impairment)

Several disabled people to raise concerns for the environment.

I know that [supermarkets] want to use less plastic but I have a medical need for my shopping to be in bags.

Harry (chronic pain)

Half of disabled customers said they experienced accessibility issues with the supermarket website or app when buying food online.

(Source: Big Hack Crowdsourcing Data October 2020)

Some accessibility barriers are easier to detect and resolve in audits, like poor colour contrast and screen reader issues.

But meeting the Web Content Accessibility guidelines (WCAG) does not guarantee a good user experience for disabled people. User experience issues fall outside the guidelines. So, barriers that affect user experience need more attention.

Through our Crowdsourcing data people reported the following user experience issues:

  • 17% faced issues with searching for products
  • 11% found advertisements and pop-ups distracting
  • 11% found product description were not detailed enough
  • 11% had issues contacting the company

I get sensory overload when confronted with a busy looking website and get confused when trying to choose items.

Jay (memory impairment, mental health condition)

The whole process is confusing, long-winded and not easy for me to use.

Jon (hearing, mobility, memory impairments)

Finding solutions to these problems requires supermarkets to collaborate with their disabled customers.

Recommendations: improving disabled customers online experience

Reduce delivery costs

Remove delivery charges and lower minimum spend for customers who are disabled.

Disabled people living alone or on low incomes find the minimum spend requirements impossible to meet. This increases the cost due to delivery charges.

Many disabled people need to schedule their food deliveries around their carer or personal assistant’s hours. So, they can help with bringing in and packing away food. These hours are typically beyond the disabled person's control. And they could be in the ‘high demand’ delivery hours which cost more.

Improve customer service

To improve customer service, supermarkets need to make it easy for customers to tell them that are disabled. This will allow supermarkets to know which customers may need priority delivery slots and other reasonable adjustments. For example, help from delivery drivers bringing shopping inside.

Supermarkets should also offer different ways for customers to contact customer service teams. They should consider providing options like:

  • telephone
  • email, and
  • web chat

Disability awareness training

All delivery drivers and customer service representatives should be aware of the support needed by disabled customers. This support should be provided without question or confrontation. 

Keeping plastic bags as a reasonable adjustment

During the pandemic, a common change in supermarket policy meant that orders were delivered in boxes and crates.

Many disabled people rely on bags with handles to transport their food. This option must always be available.

User testing and compliance with Web Content Accessibility Guidelines

User testing with a range of disabled people is essential to finding more nuanced accessibility barriers. Test with disabled people and improve the customer experience for everyone.

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1 are a technical global standard for accessibility. Designing to these standards will increase the number of people who can use your digital services. Including those with impairments, conditions or access needs.

Buying food and essentials in store

As with online shopping, many of the barriers that disabled people reported existed before coronavirus. But they became more pronounced because of the pandemic.

We wanted to know if disabled people found shopping in-store more comfortable again as restrictions started to ease.

Supermarket sentiment before, during and after the pandemic

We asked disabled shoppers to rate their overall in store shopping experience. We wanted to see how many disabled shoppers felt ‘good’ or ‘very good’ about shopping in store.

  • 67% felt good or very good, before lockdown.
  • 45% felt good or very good, during lockdown.
  • 50% felt good or very good, after restrictions eased (12 April 2021).

(Source: Scope Opinium poll May 2021)

Before lockdown, 67% of disabled shoppers said their in-store shopping experience was ‘very good’ or ‘good’ for all supermarkets. This dropped to 45% during lockdown. Since restrictions eased in April 2021, this has gone up to 50%. But there is significant room for improvement.
 
Disabled people clearly faced barriers before the pandemic. And these negative experiences have had a lasting impact. Supermarkets need to restore the trust and comfort levels of their disabled customers.

Our Opinium poll showed us, that since restrictions were eased:

  • 31% of disabled people feel apprehensive about shopping in store.
  • 29% of disabled people feel uncomfortable about shopping in store.

Attitudes

Many said that the attitudes of other customers contributed to their negative shopping experience.

  • 29% described other customer as disinterested.
  • 26% described them as ignorant.
  • 19% said they were judgmental.

A customer in a shop swore at me because I couldn't get my money out of my purse because I was shaking

Jane (learning difficulty and dyspraxia)

I had just had an operation, nothing physically noticeable and when I asked for help reaching something because I couldn't stretch my arm up the person actually tutted.

Lilly (visual impairment and chronic pain)

Asking staff for help

Disabled people tended to have a more positive experience of supermarket staff.

  • 39% said staff were helpful.
  • 35% said they were friendly.
  • 21% said they were supportive.

But, before the pandemic 67% of disabled people said they were comfortable asking staff for help. During lockdown this dropped to 46% and has only increased slightly to 51% since lockdown was eased.

Schemes do exist to support disabled customers that need help with their shopping. For example, wearing disability lanyards or carrying a card to communicate their impairment.

We found 47% of disabled shoppers would consider signing up to a scheme like this.

(Scope Opinium Poll May 2021)

Physical barriers

The most common physical barriers that disabled people reported are:

  • large numbers of other customers
  • items and products out of reach
  • changing store layout and not knowing where items are

Large numbers of customers

From our poll of in store disabled shoppers, 36% said that large numbers of other customers made shopping difficult for them.

Since the easing of restrictions, disabled people report that the increased number of people in-store makes them feel uncomfortable.

Over 2 in 5 people would like the following to remain in place after the pandemic:

  • social distancing measures
  • limits on the number of shoppers in-store

The amount of people in-store makes me uncomfortable. People tend to forget about others who may need a bit more patience, understanding and help from others. Sometimes I can hear mutterings of ’speed up!

Oliver (mobility impairment)

Reaching items

30% of people polled said that the placement of certain products made in-store shopping difficult.

Many disabled people struggle to reach items in supermarkets. For wheelchair and mobility scooter users, the reachable height is limited to a seated level.

Because of my disability I find reaching for items on high shelves impossible but can rarely see a member of staff to get help.”

Terry (mobility impairment)

Changing shops layouts

25% of people said that the frequently changing store layouts contributed to a negative in store shopping experience.

For some disabled people, having a routine while shopping is the only way they can make sure they get everything they need. Items moving around in store, creates a significant barrier. Especially for those with visual impairments and autism.

It's a big thing for me, not changing where all the items are. I've noticed almost every time I go into store that things are in different places. And I don't mean things that are on special offer. It's the usual items that are stocked. If I can't find something where I normally find it, I tend to just write it off.

Simon (mental health condition)

In our polling disabled people told us what reasonable adjustments they would typically need when in a supermarket.

  • 29% would like regular quiet hours.
  • 23% need a staff member to help with reaching items.
  • 16% said they need another person they know, for example a carer, to assist them.

Recommendations: Improving disabled people's in store experience

Keep some coronavirus safety measures

Some measures put in place during in the pandemic, may help improve disabled people’s shopping experience. It is important to consult with your disabled customers.

For example, providing regular 'quiet' slots for a smaller number of customers in-store. Establish regular hours where you only allow a small number of customers in at a time.

These should be offered at different times of the day, not just early in the morning. For many disabled people, an early morning start is not feasible.

This allows those who have carers assisting them to access their local supermarket during these quieter periods. Having carers can delay morning routines, so spread these quiet times throughout the day.

Disability awareness training for in-store staff

This will give staff an understanding of the social model of disability. Training will also help staff:

  • feel less awkward around their disabled customers
  • understand reasonable adjustments and meet people's requirements
  • understand the impact of their actions on disabled customers

Communicate that staff are willing and able to help disabled customers and understand disability. For example, this could be:

  • a tannoy announcement to remind customers they can ask for help
  • a button, lanyard or badge worn by staff who have been disability trained

Make a public commitment to disabled customers

Use existing channels to demonstrate being an ally to disabled people.

Communicate widely any schemes that could help disabled people. Make them clear and easily accessible. For example, cheaper delivery opportunities and bagged delivery.

Make sure to include disability representation in supermarket marketing. This will help disabled people to feel represented, recognised, and will build trust in your brand.

Research method

To understand the effect of the pandemic on disabled people’s access to food and essentials.

Online shopping experience data

Evidence here is based on our Big Hack online crowdsourcing tool, containing 3,600 disabled people. Data was collected between 27 October and 9 November 2020. A follow up poll of 183 disabled people looking at changes in shopping habits since the second lockdown.

The poll was carried out through Scope’s Research Panel in early January 2021. Polling included in store and online shoppers.

In store shopping experience data

Evidence based on a poll of 1001 disabled people who shopped in store. We also carried out a series of interviews with disabled people to find out more.

All participants’ names have been changed.

Related content

Opens in a new windowOpens an external siteOpens an external site in a new window