The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has commanded the ear of the courts and the attention of retail executives. Increased litigation focused on public accommodation in retail shopping environments has spurred a new awareness of the need to address merchandise accessibility and “shop-ability” for the bricks-and-mortar customer.
Large destination retailers, with highly variable promotional and seasonal sales volumes, have reaped the majority of attention. However, all retailers are responsible for adhering to the ADA. The main impact of this legislation on retail operations involves reasonable access to merchandise for disabled persons. While the regulations do not sharply define all levels of required compliance, guidelines and precedence, which cannot be neglected, have been established.
While no retail organization would deliberately impede a shopper’s access to merchandise, a number of factors could lead to situations that raise ADA accessibility issues. Examples of these include:
- Planned store productivity and profit requirements (sales per square foot, GMROI) that exceed individual store physical capacity.
- Promotional and holiday stock buildups that exceed planned store and supply chain capacity flexibility.
- Bulky seasonal and specialty event displays that infringe upon aisles and access routes.
- Clearance merchandise movement that does not match the pace at which new merchandise arrives, causing competition for fixed amounts of floor space.
- Store operational processes that are not updated to match current merchandise or labor requirements.
- Merchandise fixtures that are not employed effectively, or that need to be replaced with higher capacity models.
- Merchandising techniques and fixture placement policies that are not consistent with the need for flexibility In merchandise density and velocity that may be required by newly arriving merchandise.
- Store management and personnel that are not aware of the details of ADA Title III compliance practices and recent court decisions.
Potential causes of merchandise accessibility issues vary and may involve multiple elements of a retail business model. Resolving existing challenges and implementing sustainable programs to ensure long-term compliance requires a companywide commitment and senior management sponsorship. A number of proactive approaches to address the ADA challenge are available to the progressive retailer. We suggest the following:
- Develop a cross-functional task force to research and understand the elements of ADA and recent court decisions that define your company’s responsibilities. Seek expert legal opinion regarding ADA related decisions and accessibility requirements.
- Conduct a gap analysis in your retail stores. Develop specific ADA guidelines for your stores and train all employees in their practice. Ensure that all hard measurement criteria is rigidly adhered to (e.g., 36″ clear main aisle, 36″ high cash wraps, 36″ clear aisle to cash wraps and fitting rooms, etc.)
- Survey current compliance to ADA regulations and identify needed changes. Establish and mandate specific guidelines and procedures. Create an implementation plan that is adaptable to all stores. Audit store performance and review procedures for ongoing modifications.
- Create greater flexibility and adaptability in your selling space and use more efficient and effective merchandising techniques, such as:
- Optimize receiving, merchandise processing, display techniques and labor allocation
- Maximize merchandise configuration and fixture placement through clustering and other best practice techniques
- Create consistent visual and merchandising techniques that allow flexibility to meet specific store spatial constraints
- Review all movable fixtures to ensure effective footprint / capacity utilization and incorporate high-capacity fixtures wherever possible
- Train-all merchandisers in a consistent decision making process that will ensure compliance and meet the individual needs of each store
Potential ADA challenges may also be addressed by other key functions within a retail organization. Effective retailers will investigate all elements of their business model to identify opportunities that may impact merchandise accessibility. Examples of this suggestion include a review of:
- Merchandising mix (depth and breadth of offering)
- SKU productivity/contribution/rationalization
- Markdown strategy and processes
- Inventory management/effectiveness
Retailers who employ a comprehensive approach have been able to increase, or at least maintain, merchandise accessibility in their stores. Studies have proven that adherence to ADA guidelines can also have a positive effect on sales when shoppers can more easily access merchandise.