Blog: 13 November 2018Purple Tuesday at both ends of the spectrum

Andrew Woodrow

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Andrew Woodrow

Planning Associate

Glasgow office

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For the first time ever, a special day is being dedicated across the UK to make customer-facing businesses more aware of the opportunities and challenges faced by disabled people looking to find work, spend money online and in store, and enjoy a drink or meal out. As a shop-keeper’s son, this both interests and excites me.

Tuesday 13 November is to take the name of ‘Purple Tuesday’. Its aim is to inspire retailers to make changes to improve the disabled customer experience over the long term and assist all in achieving the full potential of the purple pound (the available ‘retail’ spending power of those who are disabled or impaired) - understood to be worth in the region of £249 billion to the UK economy.

I am not a shopper or a blogger, but having worked in my Dad’s shop for much of my formative years and for the last 15 years as a Planning Consultant delivering landmark projects for the likes of John Lewis and Sainsbury’s, I appreciate the value that retail plays. I know just how important it is to get it right, and in particular how influential retail can be on a different level, in bringing communities together in more ‘local’ locations such as my Dad’s newsagents. Retail offers huge value at both ends of the spectrum.

Purple Tuesday makes us all appreciate the value of not only getting a ‘shop’ in order, to open up access, but to also ensure there is a level playing field in terms of the independent and the multi-national. Big retail, such as supermarkets, major town centre shopping schemes and retail parks have until recently been all about making the best use of the floorspace available. Retailers have very much focused on achieving consent for the most floorspace available and then filling said space with products. We will all recognise that feeling when we walk into a well-known high street clothes stores and can’t seem to walk down the aisle without knocking a pair of jeans off a rail with your bag. Imagine what that was like for a wheelchair user?

More recently though there has been a shift in retail towards the experience. Shopping and leisure combinations focus on comfort as much as the volume of products you can get in front of the customer. It’s becoming less about cramming stock into the space you have, and more about making good use of the space to create a great experience for the customer.

Speaking recently to a friend whose son is a wheelchair user, the list of small changes with a big impact was lengthy but would make a big difference to both the purple pound, but also improve the shopping experience for us all. Good internal and external design of retail space is the obvious factor, creating easily legible routes, lower clothes rails, well-maintained lifts, bright airy shops with lots of natural light are all obvious moves towards a more comfortable environment for all. In addition, some retailers provide ‘quiet store’ programmes, when music is turned off and the number of shoppers controlled, for those who are not comfortable with noise and busy spaces. But I firmly believe these tweaks are easy for the major retailers.

I believe a big challenge instead lies with the local retailers, the man on the street, such as my Dad. Local town centres are key for those who are less able. Often on the doorstep and having historically had all the requirements that a person needs to get through their day-to-day lives. But it’s hard to drive change here. For smaller independent shop owners focus is often on making ends meet. There is not a single landlord who knows they can take a hit on cost here and make it up elsewhere. Installing a ramp, or a wider door becomes a bigger challenge for these individuals to justify.

So what mechanisms could be brought in to assist the smaller retailers and the local town centres to embrace the purple pound? The City of Edinburgh Council recently brought in powers to ban small advertising boards outside shops, to improve accessibility, and whilst I agree with the idea behind it, often these boards are used to advertise the small independent stores that don’t have a multi-national marketing campaign and rely on passing footfall spotting that advertising board. Although well-intended, I can’t help thinking we need to be a little cleverer than this. We’re not after all about to ban cobbled streets or the street entertainers at the Festival, and I’m not saying that on-street advertising is the same, but we must be able to consider impact in the round and still make some significant impact for everyone, without undermining the viability of our struggling smaller retailers.

I don’t have all the answers yet, but this shows the power of Purple Tuesday, if it gets us thinking. It brings an issue to the forefront that needs to be addressed, not just in our clothes stores, shopping centres and retail parks, but importantly within our local town centres where the issue is arguably a greater one to address.

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Retail, Accessibility, Planning, Purple Tuesday, City of Edinburgh Council