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Citizens Advice: online shopping and disabled consumers

By Citizens Advice

Online shopping and delivery services are particularly important for people with disabilities - it can be far more convenient or time-saving to shop online than navigate the high street. However, our research found that these services are often not up to scratch.

Disabled consumers should be a key customer group for retailers. 13.3 million people in the UK have a disability, and they influence more than £80 billion worth of spending each year. Making deliveries accessible should be a priority for businesses - it’s the right thing to do and can bring in significant extra revenue. We’re providing insights and asking retailers and parcel operators to sign up to our delivery charter to ensure disabled consumers can fully engage with e-retail.

As the statutory consumer advocate for postal consumers, Citizens Advice has a particular responsibility to speak up for vulnerable postal consumers. Our latest research explores disabled consumers’ journeys from online shopping to collection and home delivery. We conducted qualitative interviews, mystery shopping at post offices and a large-scale representative survey.

Delivery doesn’t always make life easier for disabled consumers

Home delivery is a feature of shopping which should, in theory, make life easier for customers – but this isn’t always the case for disabled consumers. We found that 1 in 4 disabled consumers experienced delivery issues in the last year, and a significant portion of disabled consumers avoided using some delivery services altogether because they found them too difficult to use:

Experiences are worst for disabled consumers who have multiple impairments. The chart below illustrates some of the differences in experience for disabled and non-disabled consumers when engaging with postal services. These consumers are:

  • more than 2x as likely as non-disabled consumers to have avoided having items sent for home delivery in the last year
  • 4x as likely as non-disabled consumers to have avoided collecting items during this time frame

Disabled consumers are significantly more likely to avoid using delivery services:

Showing % likely to have avoided doing each activity - or asked a friend or family member to do this on their behalf - in the last year

These services are clearly not meeting the needs of disabled consumers.

Retailers and parcel operators don’t have the information they need to make successful deliveries for disabled consumers

Generally, home delivery - rather than collection in-store or from a pick-up point - is first choice for disabled consumers when buying items online. But the ‘one size fits all’ approach to delivery often used by retailers and parcel operators means that often home delivery doesn’t work:

Concern about being able to collect deliveries at home is resulting in serious anxiety for some disabled consumers - not knowing when to expect items due to a lack of tracking information means that these consumers aren’t able to make the preparations necessary for them to ensure successful receipt (e.g. for consumers with mobility issues, making sure they’re near the front door or that someone else is home).

Improving tracking information - making sure it is available and accurate - will go some way to improving delivery services for disabled and non-disabled consumers. However, one of the key reasons home delivery isn’t working for disabled consumers specifically is because they generally aren’t able to give last mile couriers the information they need to make a successful delivery.

Up and down the country we heard stories of detriment caused by a lack of awareness on the part of the last mile courier - couriers unwittingly leaving items out of reach of consumers who use wheelchairs or rushing away from consumers with mobility issues.

This is why we’re calling on retailers and parcel operators to work together to enable disabled consumers to specify any additional delivery needs they might have, and transmit this information to the last mile courier. Without the means to provide this information, the number of failed first time deliveries will continue to increase for disabled consumers. Disabled and non-disabled consumers alike have experienced receiving a ‘sorry we missed you’ card despite being in the house - however, the impact of failed deliveries can be particularly significant for disabled consumers.

Failed first time deliveries disproportionately affect disabled consumers

A ‘carded’ delivery can mean much more than a mild inconvenience for disabled consumers. If first time delivery fails, disabled consumers are faced with the choice of rearranging the missed delivery back to their house - without any guarantee that it will work better for them the second time around -  or travelling to a collection point or depot. Collection points and depots are often the last resort for disabled consumers because of the difficulties they can face getting to and around these locations as explored in our customer journey report. Many disabled consumers are reliant on family, friends or carers to collect items, while others are forced to negotiate public transport or pay over the odds for taxis. This means collecting missed deliveries can be a time-consuming and expensive exercise.

Rhian has severe arthritis and muscular conditions which makes getting to the door in time when a courier makes a delivery difficult - meaning she has missed deliveries on several occasions.

“They’re so impatient. They’ll ring the bell and only give you so long to get to the front door because of their time pressures. That’s when I have most problems because if they haven’t allowed me to get to the door in time, then they’ll leave a card… I’m then reliant on someone going to get it for me”.

Difficulties collecting items from collection points and depots are compounded by the lack of consistently available information about the accessibility features such as parking, level access and portable pin pads available at collection points (including the Post Office, Royal Mail depots, convenience stores and dedicated parcel shops). Some providers such as DPD and CollectPlus have started adding basic disabled access information to their main branch finders.

Following our recommendations, Post Office Ltd have committed to linking detailed accessibility information to their main branch finder. But others have not yet integrated any information on accessibility features on their main branch finder. Without this information, disabled consumers are unable to make an informed decision on where is best for them to collect their items. Disabled consumers should be able to choose collection points based on clear and accurate information on the accessibility features available at each location.

Too often we heard stories from disabled consumers who had made long and complicated trips to collection points, only to find out that they could not access the building, let alone complete their transaction.

Vicky uses a wheelchair and experiences difficulties collecting items from her local depot because it does not have level access. The depot requires ID to collect items, but Vicky cannot enter the building because of the steps at the entrance. This means she has to ask friends or family members to collect items on her behalf - but sometimes staff at the depot will not let them use Vicky’s ID to collect items and require Vicky to be there in person - which she cannot do.

“When I have to pick something up somewhere or take something back I normally have someone with me. And it’s a case of if [the collection point or depot] needs ID, you give the person your ID and if they won’t accept it then it’s a case of ‘just tell them I’m here, outside, sat in the car waiting because I can’t get in the shop’”.

Having the right information is vital - disabled consumers need to be able to make informed choices on where they can collect and return items based on accurate accessibility information, and last mile drivers need to be aware of any additional delivery needs if they are to make a successful first-time delivery.

Designing solutions

We’ve designed our delivery charter for disabled consumers to encourage retailers and parcel operators to work together to ensure online shopping and delivery services meet the needs of disabled consumers. We’ve been working with Post Office Ltd to encourage them to make sure that accessibility information about each of their 11,500+ branches is easily available online -  a recommendation they’ve now committed to - and we now want to work with other parcel operators to ensure this information is available for each of their pick up and drop off points. We’ve also been working with disabled consumers and operators to come up with solutions which would allow disabled consumers to specify any additional delivery needs they may have - for example, additional time to get to the door, or particular accessible places for last mile couriers to leave items.

Some retailers already allow consumers to leave additional delivery instructions (including patience at the door, or a request to knock loudly) at the point of purchase, and we think this should be provided as standard across the online retail sector. This will improve customer service for disabled consumers, with the added benefit of improving first time delivery rates. We tested our proposed solutions with disabled consumers:

We recognise that solutions will vary for different retailers and operators depending on the systems and technologies they have in place. One solution could take the form of an open text box on the checkout page of retailer websites where disabled consumers could specify any additional delivery needs they may have (e.g. additional time to get to the door). This information could then be transmitted automatically to the handheld devices of last mile couriers and taken into account on the doorstep as items are delivered.

Alternatively, we have explored the option of whether parcel tracking numbers could be used to log into an app where disabled consumers could specify any additional delivery needs for each item they purchase, and this information could again be transmitted directly to the last mile courier.

The solutions we’ve tested thus far - and disabled consumers’ initial responses - are below.

Base: disabled consumers who order items online for home delivery (n=124).

These are broad solutions and not an exhaustive list - we are committed to working with retailers and parcel operators to ensure that this issue, and others as outlined in our customer journey report and our delivery charter for retailers and operators, are resolved to ensure that disabled consumers have sufficient access to the online shopping and delivery services they need.

Please do get in touch — we would be delighted to discuss our research findings and proposed solutions in more detail and highlight any examples of good practice. Contact Emma Bailey at emma.bailey@citizensadvice.org.uk

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