Easy Access

December 01, 2010
Written by Andrew Hind
Narrow doorways, cramped aisles, snaking hoses and steps – your garden centre can be home to challenging obstacles for shoppers who have a disability, or for families armed with strollers.

More than two million Canadians have some sort of physical disability and they, along with their friends and family, represent a sizable segment of the population. This market grows even larger if the eight million baby boomers in this country are included. This age group might not require accessibility, but benefit from it due to aging issues. You can also add the parents of young families into this mix, as they often come to garden centre with a stroller in tow. That’s a lot of people, and a lot of potential customers to either attract or deter.

In that light, making a store accessible to people with disabilities just makes good business sense: an accessible retail environment brings in new customers and keeps them coming back again.
Accessibility means much more than just having ramps for wheelchairs. In fact, accessibility covers a wide range of retail design and maintenance considerations that most customers would likely take for granted. These include the parking lot, the route into and through the establishment, and access to store services.

The biggest concern many business owners have when the subject of accessibility comes up is cost. But making a retail environment considerate of the needs of people with disabilities or physical limitations doesn’t have to be an expensive proposition. Here are a few ways a garden centre can become more accessible without spending a lot of time or money.

Accessible parking
Most stores have designated accessible parking spaces close to entrances but its another thing to ensure they are useful to the people they are intended to assist. To make accessible parking spaces usable, all elements of these spaces must be free of obstructions: the vehicle space, the access aisle, the curb and the route that connects the parking space to the building entrance.

The amount of space required for a wheelchair user to safely and comfortably enter and exit a vehicle is substantial. The wheelchair must be placed in the access aisle (requiring several feet of clearance), the person must then transfer from the car seat to the wheelchair and then roll backward in the access aisle to provide clearance to close the car door. If the aisle is blocked with shopping carts or unplowed snow, the wheelchair user does not have sufficient room to get out of her car. You’ve lost a customer.

As a result, it’s vital to remove obstacles, including shopping carts and vehicles without designated licence plates or stickers from accessible parking spaces as soon as possible. You know what they say about first impressions, and to a person with disabilities, accessibility parking is the first thing they’ll notice.

In addition, it’s important to keep the route from the parking area to the entrance clear (including keeping it free from ice and snow in the wintertime), and to maintain curbs and sidewalks to ensure large cracks or uneven surfaces – things that can pose danger to people with mobility issues – don’t form.

Clear route through store
Every business should have at least one accessible entrance. Such an entrance should have no steps or rises, and either open automatically or by pressing a button. If the accessible entrance is distinct from the main entrance, then clear signage at the main entrance should direct customers to this alternative. Never use turn-style entrances, as they are extremely difficult for people in wheelchairs to navigate.

It’s important to lay out your store with aisles wide enough for wheelchairs to comfortably pass through. To be fair, most stores begin wheelchair-accessible; after all, wide aisles are esthetically pleasing, and encourage people to browse and linger. But then sales racks, overstock, seasonal displays, impulse buy items, vending machines, information racks, sale signage and a host of other items spill out into the aisles.

Suddenly, you have accessibility issues. Do a regular walk-through of your store with this issue in mind, and immediately correct any problem areas.

Eliminate any table covers that spill into the aisles, and be wary of using mats and area carpets. These can create trip hazards for customers with low vision and snag under patrons’ crutches, canes, and walkers, and in their wheelchair wheels.

Finally, remember that restrooms are an integral part of the store environment, so they too should be accessible. Make sure there is plenty of room for a wheelchair to manoeuvre around large trash cans, furniture, or anything else that takes up valuable space in restrooms. There should be accessible paper towel and soap dispensers, which should be routinely refilled along with all other dispensers.

Lending a helping hand
Customers with disabilities should be able to access all of the services within a retail environment. This naturally begins with displays. While it’s perhaps unrealistic to have every item within arm’s reach of someone using a wheelchair, the most commonly purchased items should be. In addition, staff members should be circulating on the sales floor ready to assist with out-of-reach items (having visible staff members ready to assist is good customer service anyway).

Checkout counters that are too high are a major problem. You may want to consider having a lower checkout as an option for people in wheelchairs. Racks displaying information sheets and sales flyers should also be low enough to be accessible to people in wheelchairs.

The most important, but also most overlooked, aspect of accessibility is customer service. Staff members who are uneducated about disability issues and proper etiquette can make for a bad shopping experience for people with disabilities. It therefore makes good sense to train staff in how to serve customers with disabilities. But where do you turn for such specialized training?

The Retail Council of Canada has partnered with the Province of Ontario to develop a new interactive tool, “How May I Help You,” which uses real-world scenarios to teach people how to interact with customers who have a variety of disabilities, including those who use assistive devices (such as canes or wheelchairs), have an invisible disability like a learning or mental health disability, are accompanied by a sign language interpreter, or who have a support person. The tool’s goal is to help businesses attract more customers with disabilities. For more information, go to www.accesson.ca/en/mcss/programs/accessibility/.

Accessibility Tips to Take Away
Here are some additional suggestions to make a garden centre disability fridendly, courtesy of gillian Lynne-Davis, communications and marketing co-ordinator for the Canadian Paraplegic Association in Ontario:
  • Offer a delivery service
  • Have plenty of staff on hand to provide in-store assistance
  • Provide seating for those who may not have a wheelchair but who have a mobility-related disability
  • Include raised displays so a person does not always have to lean down or reach up to see plants (gardeners who use wheelchairs often use container planting in their gardens for accessibility)
  • Offer accessible products such as containers, easy grip tools, light-weight tools, bags to attach to a wheelchair to carry tools around, books related to gardening with a disability, etc.

Kim Burton, communications co-ordinator for the Canadian Nursery and Landscape Association, provided Canadian Garden Centre & Nursery with this comment on the topic of accessibility in the garden centre:

“Canada, unlike many other countries, is without a specific disabilities act, but does have the Enabling Accessibility Fund, where private organizations, educational organizations and not-for-profit organizations can apply for grants up to $75,000 for projects that improve accessibility. However, any retail business, including garden centres, must provide open access to all potential customers, including those with a disability. When applying for a building permit, any new retail garden centre being constructed, or a garden centre having renovations completed, is mandated to follow standards as established by the city where they are located, such as automatic door openers, wheelchair accessible bathroom stalls, railings and disabled parking spots. The province of Ontario does have the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, which came into law in 2008, providing legal compliance specifics for accessibility for retail operators in the province. For more information, visit www.mcss.gov.on.ca/en/mcss/programs/accessibility/ComplyingStandards/index.aspx.”

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