Starbucks melds tech and people to assist the blind

Discussion
Photo: Customer using Aira, a free service offered by Starbucks – Photo: Starbucks
Mar 19, 2021
Matthew Stern

Starbucks is using technology to make trips to get coffee more customer friendly for those who are blind or have otherwise compromised vision.

The chain is implementing a solution that allows blind and low-vision customers to get real-time audio assistance to guide them through stores, according to GeekWire. The solution, which customers can access for free, connects visitors with a human agent who can read the menu and describe items, help navigate the layout of the store and, with a feature specifically geared to the pandemic era, communicate how many people are in line and where they are standing to help the customer maintain social distance.

Starbucks is known for its adoption of socially conscious stances and practices.

The coffee giant scored 100 percent on the Disability Equality Index (DEI) survey in 2016, according to a press release. The company also scored high marks for such initiatives as a Starbucks Inclusion Academy at a roasting plant, which offered specialized training and for hiring people with disabilities to work at two of its facilities. Even at that time, the chain was providing braille and large print menus for the visually impaired, as well as some solutions for customers with difficulty hearing, such a speech-to-text.

Starbucks is not the only brand that is taking steps to more effectively meet the needs of visually impaired customers.

Beauty brand Cleanlogic, as part of an initiative to shift from plastic to all paper packaging, will print braille on every product, according to Glossy. Other brands, like L’Occitane, have also begun placing braille on packaging. Procter & Gamble has begun to make products like Herbal Essences bottles that customers can differentiate from one another by touch. The changes come with an increase in low-vision customers as the Baby Boomer population ages.

Such innovations have likewise been appearing in the pharmacy space, an area of retail with a large senior customer base. Walgreens has, for instance, had a great deal of success with its app designed to incorporate a few senior-targeted features, including variable-sized text for the vision impaired.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Should solutions like the one Starbucks is using to help blind and low-vision customers shop become standard practice in retail stores and foodservice establishments? Are there steps that small chains and independents can afford to take?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
Braintrust
"All can make strides to improve and happily, most efforts, even custom apps are small investments."
"I applaud Starbucks for their efforts. All customers, regardless of disability or impairment, should have a great experience engaging with a brand."
"What a great initiative by Starbucks! Can smaller chains follow? Depends..."

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8 Comments on "Starbucks melds tech and people to assist the blind"


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Ken Lonyai
BrainTrust

This is a nice effort, hopefully entirely for altruistic reasons. While there likely will be increases by some to incorporate braille and other vision-impaired affordances, most stores will not easily be able to implement tech solutions similar to what Starbucks did, especially for much larger stores. Nevertheless, all can make strides to improve and happily, most efforts, even custom apps are small investments.

Ricardo Belmar
BrainTrust

This is a great effort by Starbucks to be more accommodating to vision-impaired customers! Can other retailers do similar things? Yes, to a degree. Unfortunately there is a cost factor to doing this, and not all retailers can absorb that cost. For those that can do so, I encourage them to follow Starbucks’ example. You could also argue that smaller and independent retailers that do this will gain a competitive advantage over retailers that are not more accommodating. This is certainly an area that has not received as much attention as it should in recent years, being overshadowed by areas such as sustainability, and its time has come to be more prominently discussed in the retail industry.

Casey Craig
BrainTrust

I applaud Starbucks for their efforts. All customers, regardless of disability or impairment, should have a great experience engaging with a brand. Yes there is a cost in doing so but today’s customers are very aware and become loyal to companies that are doing “good” regardless of if the goodness directly impacts them.

Shep Hyken
BrainTrust

Kudos to Starbucks for being a role model when it comes to inclusion (and diversity). This has always been important, but seems to be getting a lot more attention than it used to. This is a good thing. Other brands should study what Starbucks and other notable retailers are doing in this area and learn. What are they doing that can be “borrowed?” Just because some of these retailers are big, doesn’t mean their ideas can’t be scaled down or adapted. That’s where to start.

Bindu Gupta
BrainTrust

What a great initiative by Starbucks! Can smaller chains follow? Depends if they have the budget, the right technology and a holistic strategy that aligns with their brand values.

Venky Ramesh
BrainTrust

Kudos to Starbucks for taking this initiative. While I understand it is a costly affair to implement tech like this, I think there are other ways to address inclusivity. For example, engage a company like Auticon, an IT consulting firm that exclusively employs adults on the autism spectrum as Information technology consultants.

Georganne Bender
BrainTrust

Kudos to Starbucks for coming up with a solution to helping blind and vision-impaired customers navigate the store and the menu more easily. The best part is that it is connecting these customers with a real person to offer help.

McDonald’s currently offers its menu in Braille; I wonder how many other retailers do as well, because they should. Certainly, the customer service offered in indie establishments is helpful once the customer is in-store.

Boomers definitely need help with reading in low light situations, but Gen X and now Millennials have their own problems. Presbyopia, the inability to focus on anything close up, requires the use of reading glasses. It kicks in around age 40 so there are already millions of consumers out there who can’t read the fine print or small type on menus without their “readers.”

Rachelle King
BrainTrust

Starbucks tactics are advanced and of course helpful, but it may be a stretch for these tactics to become standard practice because of variability in size/scale/resources across the retail industry. What should be standard practice, however, is that all retail stores and foodservice establishments have addressable solutions for blind and low-vision customers. While Boomers are aging, they are not the only population group that can benefit from vision assistance. All too often, braille menus or low-vision resources are hidden away or, by request only. Making low-vision services more universally available, and visible, might help remove the stigma these customers often face as well.

For retailers that can’t lean into advanced technology or even reprint menus, a more affordable path may be to train employees to assist these customers. An even better alternative would be to hire skilled employees who can assist special needs customers when they are in-store. I’ve seen restaurants do it, why not retailers too?

wpDiscuz
Braintrust
"All can make strides to improve and happily, most efforts, even custom apps are small investments."
"I applaud Starbucks for their efforts. All customers, regardless of disability or impairment, should have a great experience engaging with a brand."
"What a great initiative by Starbucks! Can smaller chains follow? Depends..."

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