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Why Accessibility is a Necessity for E-Business
Feb 16, 2024

Why Accessibility is a Necessity for E-Business

The online shopping landscape is experiencing an unprecedented surge with no signs of slowing down. A growing number of consumers opt for the convenience of e-commerce platforms over traditional brick-and-mortar stores. In fact, a recent study indicated that US online retail sales reached a whopping 1.14 trillion USD last year, a substantial 10% increase from 2022. 

For e-commerce businesses, this surge presents a golden opportunity to capitalize on the expanding market. However, this also raises critical questions:  

  • Is your website poised to accommodate the surge of potential customers?  
  • Does it excel in presenting products and services for optimal digital visibility and heightened sales? 
  • Moreover, does your website pose any obstacles to potential buyers?  
  • Most importantly, is your website universally accessible, including for individuals with disabilities? 

Highlighting the magnitude of this issue, the World Health Organization reports that more than 16% of the global population, totaling 1.3 billion people, identifies as having a disability, making it the largest minority group globally. Shockingly, only 3% of the internet is currently accessible to them. According to the US Census Bureau, 56.7 million Americans have a disability, with over half categorizing their disabilities as “severe,” and around 12 million admitting to requiring assistance with crucial tasks in their daily lives. 

In an in-depth analysis of the digital marketplace, a study was conducted on 50 top-ranking e-commerce sites, as identified by ecommerceDB, to assess their accessibility to all users. This analysis utilized a modified version of the Website Accessibility Conformance Evaluation Methodology (WCAG-EM) 1.0 and employed the Web Accessibility Evaluation Tool (WAVE) for its evaluation. 

The findings of this study revealed a correlation score of 0.329 between the rankings of these e-commerce sites and the presence of accessibility barriers, as determined by Spearman’s Rho.  

Despite being positive, the score was considered low, indicating only a slight relationship where, as the rank of an e-commerce site improved, the number of accessibility barriers slightly decreased. However, this relationship was not strong or direct, suggesting that while higher-ranked e-commerce sites were somewhat more accessible than their lower-ranked counterparts, the correlation was not strong enough to firmly conclude that a high rank directly resulted in high accessibility. 

Put simply, this finding was insightful but indicated that there was considerable room for improvement across the board. The study identified the top 10 most accessible sites as Sainsbury’s Supermarkets, Walmart, Target Corporation, Macy’s, IKEA, H&M Hennes, Chewy, Kroger, QVC, and Nike. These sites, despite leading in accessibility, were part of a broader landscape where the link between high rankings and low accessibility barriers was only modestly positive.  

The study highlighted the critical need for continued efforts to enhance website accessibility, aiming to ensure that e-commerce platforms are inclusive and accessible to all users, irrespective of their abilities. 

These statistics evoke empathy, but what implications do they hold for your bottom line? 

The Click-Away Pound Survey reveals compelling insights, including: 

  • 71% of customers will abandon a website facing accessibility issues. 
  • Over 80% of respondents express a strong preference for conducting business on e-commerce websites that minimize barriers, even over those offering lower prices. 
  • 90% of individuals who click away due to accessibility concerns would never reach out to the website for support, resulting in a significant loss for e-commerce sites unaware of the missed opportunities. 

This shows ensuring accessibility for e-commerce websites is not just a matter of social responsibility; it is a strategic need that expands your customer base, enhances user experience, and ultimately contributes to the overall success of your business. 

Moreover, millions of dollars in potential revenue may slip through the cracks each year due to a lack of digital accessibility, and you might not even be aware of it.  

So, what exactly is digital accessibility, and why should you start giving it the attention it deserves? 

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What is Digital Accessibility, and How Does It Impact Individuals? 

In e-commerce, ensuring accessibility means crafting inclusive experiences by granting barrier-free access to all customers in an online store. This involves not limiting the user experience for individuals facing physical, cognitive, or situational disabilities.  

Digital accessibility extends the inclusivity of digital platforms and products, ensuring that content, services, experiences, and functionality are available to everyone, regardless of their means or ability.   

With the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) establishing digital accessibility as the legal standard, e-commerce emerges as one of the critical areas for compliance.  

Morgan & Stanley predicts a near doubling of the e-commerce market by 2026, projecting that 27% of all retail sales will be e-commerce purchases. This growth in e-commerce signifies a fundamental shift in shopping behavior.  

Incorporating digital accessibility into e-commerce solutions ensures that: 

  • Every customer has equal access to information, products, and services, regardless of their physical or cognitive abilities. 
  • The shopping experience is seamless and intuitive, reducing barriers that might otherwise deter potential customers. 
  • Compliance with international standards is maintained, protecting the business from potential legal complications and reinforcing its reputation as a responsible, customer-centric entity. 

E-commerce Regulations and Other Accessibility Guidelines   

Building on the importance of digital accessibility and its impact on individuals, it is imperative to address how regulations like the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA), and the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) play a crucial role in shaping accessible e-commerce experiences. 

Here’s an overview of the key regulations and guidelines that govern accessibility for e-commerce websites: 

1. Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) 

The ADA is a civil rights law in the United States that prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life, including jobs, schools, transportation, and all public and private places open to the general public.  

For e-commerce, Title III of the ADA is particularly relevant as it requires businesses’ websites to be accessible to individuals with disabilities. While the ADA does not explicitly mention websites, U.S. courts have interpreted its provisions to apply to digital properties.  

Several notable cases have highlighted the importance of digital accessibility. In 2008, Target was fined $6 million USD for not being accessible to users with disabilities. Other retailers, such as Winn-Dixie and CVS, have also received fines for not having accessible websites or apps. 

2. Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) 

AODA is a law in Ontario, Canada, aiming to create a more accessible Ontario by identifying, and to the extent possible, preventing and eliminating barriers experienced by individuals with disabilities.  

For e-commerce businesses operating in Ontario or serving Ontario residents, compliance with AODA is mandatory. It requires digital content and web technologies to be accessible, following the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 Level AA. 

3. Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 

WCAG is developed through the W3C process in cooperation with individuals and organizations worldwide. It provides a single shared standard for web content accessibility that meets the needs of individuals, organizations, and governments internationally.  

WCAG 2.1 is the latest published version that includes guidelines for making web content more accessible to a wider range of people with disabilities, including blindness and low vision, deafness and hearing loss, limited movement, speech disabilities, photosensitivity, and learning disabilities and cognitive limitations. 

WCAG is structured around four principles, ensuring that content is perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust (POUR). Compliance levels are defined as A (lowest), AA, and AAA (highest). 

4. Section 508 

Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 requires Federal agencies to make their electronic and information technology accessible to people with disabilities.  

While explicitly targeting U.S. federal agencies, Section 508 has implications for e-commerce businesses that deal with government agencies or receive federal funding, as their websites must also meet these standards. 

Common Oversights in Implementing E-commerce Accessibility 

Implementing e-commerce accessibility effectively requires meticulous attention to detail and a deep understanding of diverse user needs.  

Despite the best intentions, some common oversights can inadvertently hinder the accessibility of e-commerce platforms, impacting the user experience for individuals with disabilities. Recognizing and addressing these oversights is crucial for ensuring digital platforms are truly inclusive and accessible to all users.  

Here are some of the most common oversights in implementing e-commerce accessibility: 

1. Inadequate Alt Text for Images 

Images play a crucial role in e-commerce, offering visual details on products. However, failing to provide descriptive alternative text (alt text) for images is a common oversight. This omission denies users with visual impairments access to important information, as screen readers rely on alt text to convey the content of images.  

2. Ignoring Color Contrast Guidelines 

Color contrast is vital for users with visual impairments, such as color blindness or low vision. E-commerce sites often overlook the importance of sufficient color contrast between text and background colors, making content difficult or impossible for these users to read.  

To address this, e-commerce sites must adhere to color contrast guidelines to ensure that text is readable for users with visual impairments. 

3. Overlooking Accessible Forms 

Forms are a fundamental part of e-commerce sites, used for checkout, registration, and feedback.  

Not properly labeling form fields, lacking field descriptions, or failing to provide error messages that are clear and actionable can significantly impair the ability of users with disabilities to complete these forms independently. 

4. Neglecting to Make Dynamic Content Accessible 

As e-commerce platforms become more dynamic, with content that updates in real-time without a full-page refresh, ensuring this content is accessible becomes more challenging. Failure to announce dynamic content changes to screen reader users, such as updates to shopping carts or error messages, can create confusion and barriers to completing transactions. 

Moreover, the lack of accessible video and multimedia content hinders the shopping experience when overlooking features like captions for the deaf or hard of hearing, audio descriptions for the blind, and keyboard accessibility for multimedia controls. 

5. Inadequate Testing and User Feedback 

Relying solely on automated accessibility testing tools without incorporating user testing with individuals with disabilities is a significant oversight. These tools can identify some technical accessibility issues but may not capture usability challenges faced by users.  

Engaging real users in testing and feedback loops is critical for uncovering and addressing nuanced accessibility and usability issues. 

Implementation Costs and Risks of Not Having E-commerce Accessibility 

The cost of implementing accessibility in e-commerce must be viewed as an investment rather than a mere expense. The initial costs include: 

  • Initial Assessment and Audit Costs: The first step towards implementing accessibility is understanding the current accessibility level of the e-commerce site. This may involve hiring experts to conduct thorough audits, which can be costly depending on the complexity and size of the site. 
  • Development and Remediation Costs: Addressing the issues identified in the audit requires investment in development resources to make the necessary changes. This might include redesigning elements for better keyboard navigation, ensuring all content is accessible to screen readers, and adjusting color contrasts. 
  • Training and Ongoing Maintenance Costs: Ensuring that staff are knowledgeable about accessibility standards and best practices involves training costs. Additionally, e-commerce sites require ongoing maintenance to remain accessible, especially as new content is added or features are developed. 

On the flip side, the risks of not implementing accessibility can have legal, financial, and reputational implications: 

  • Legal Risks: The most immediate risk of ignoring accessibility is the potential for legal action. In jurisdictions with strict accessibility laws, such as the United States (under the ADA) and Canada (under the AODA), businesses face a real risk of lawsuits and legal penalties. 
  • Lost Revenue: By not making e-commerce platforms accessible, businesses miss out on reaching a wider audience, including individuals with disabilities, their families, and their networks, potentially resulting in a significant loss of revenue. 
  • Reputational Damage: Failing to provide an accessible online shopping experience can harm a brand’s reputation. With social media and online reviews amplifying consumers’ voices, negative experiences can quickly impact a company’s public image and customer loyalty. 

What’s Next? 

As businesses undergo digital transformation, accessibility should be a cornerstone of this process. Ignoring accessibility can hinder a company’s ability to innovate and adapt to the evolving digital landscape, impacting long-term growth and competitiveness. 

As a leader in cloud and digital product engineering, TechBlocks’ commitment to innovation and excellence includes ensuring our e-commerce solutions are accessible. By considering diverse needs in design, navigation, and functionality, we make it possible for everyone to participate fully in the digital marketplace.  

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Join us in setting new standards for accessibility and user experience in the e-commerce industry! 

About the Author

Prashant Kumar

Prashant is a passionate technology entrepreneur, working tirelessly to assist business owners, executives and technologists realize their vision and maximize their ROI on digital value chains through innovative technology platforms and services. He is the founder and CEO of a portfolio of companies. Some of them are proven successful brands (i.e. TechBlocks, Flex1) with a track record of being the best in their respective domains. Others are stealth start-ups that are on accelerated journeys. These range from a BPO company to an online SaaS platform for HR.

His entrepreneurial journey started with TechBlocks; a family that grew from two people to more than 100 people between 2011 and 2018. He has assisted some of the finest CIOs, CTOs, and CEOs in the US, Canada, Asia and South Africa from Fortune 100 organizations, mid-market companies, and SMBs to start-ups successfully realize some of their most ambitious technology initiatives through TechBlocks and Flex1. We have provided our clients with a team of technologists, strategists, evangelists, and platforms with a single-minded goal of providing solutions that help them realize their desired business outcomes.

Additionally, his ventures run as an incubator and accelerator assisting start-ups funded by VCs and large enterprises building products and platforms, following lean engineering principles. Our goal is to bring your ideas to life in the quickest possible timeframe and optimize your digital footprint while keeping you nimble during growth. We have successfully done this for our clients and multiple companies that we have started and funded from ideation to revenue and growth stage. Flex1 is the latest example of that endeavor.

We are global, so is our presence and so are our clients. Our focus is on our clients, their clients, and stakeholders. With TechBlocks and Flex1, excellence under constant pressure has become a habit that we are religious about.

Prashant Kumar