web accessibility

Why E-Commerce Sites Must Address Web Accessibility During COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has shut down school systems, forced businesses to close their doors and has completely changed our normal way of living as we adapt to social distancing and stay at home orders.

While retail foot traffic is down significantly, e-commerce sales have spiked. A report from Barron’s revealed that e-commerce sales in the United States jumped 25 percent by the end of March, with demand for groceries, entertainment and exercise products driving much of the growth.

As more businesses shift to an e-commerce-driven model, website accessibility is more crucial than ever before. For your company’s website to be all-inclusive, you must follow web design practices that make your site functional for those with disabilities or impairments. 

In a time when in-store shopping has become an impossibility for most of us, your startup’s e-commerce component must make web accessibility a priority.

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Where e-commerce stores are falling short

Generally speaking, most websites do not account for the needs of users with disabilities. This includes a wide range of issues that could impact website usability, including blindness, hearing disabilities, mobility impairments or a risk for epileptic seizures.

To address these needs, the Web Accessibility Initiative has provided the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), which detail changes websites should make to help disabled users.

Many individuals with disabilities rely on assistive devices that enable them to navigate websites and perform basic tasks like reading an article or purchasing an item. Unfortunately, even seemingly minor hiccups can present major obstacles for individuals who depend on screen readers or keyboard-only navigation.

For example, an analysis of 10,000,000 webpages conducted by accessiBe found that 98 percent of website menus failed to meet WCAG standards, typically from a lack of keyboard functionality or proper “NAV” tags. Eighty-nine percent of websites with popups did not meet WCAG requirements, as many did not even notify screen reader users that a popup was on the screen, leaving them completely stuck.

Such instances can completely upend the on-site experience for individuals with disabilities. Meeting WCAG requirements could make all the difference in whether or not a potential customer can buy the items they need from you while in quarantine.

Related: 4 Signs Your Startup’s Website Isn’t Accessible

Risks for e-commerce sellers

Failing to account for website accessibility will also create problems for you, as an e-commerce seller. The most immediate concern is the potential for lost sales: when someone can’t access your content, they aren’t going to stay on your site.

The 2019 Click-Away Pound study, which surveyed disabled individuals regarding their online shopping habits, found that 69 percent will click away from websites that present access barriers. In contrast, 83 percent said they try to “limit their shopping to sites they know are barrier-free.”

Another risk for e-commerce entrepreneurs is the increasing number of ADA-related lawsuits against websites that are not accessible. Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology both recently reached settlements costing each school over $1 million because of lawsuits over their websites being “inaccessible to people with hearing difficulties.” Major brands like Domino’s have also come under fire for screen reader incompatibility.

The number of web accessibility lawsuits has risen sharply in recent years as it is increasingly viewed as an issue that falls under the scope of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The COVID-19 pandemic adds further fuel to the fire by increasing the stress and anger many are feeling. If someone is unable to get essential items during a time of crisis because of web accessibility issues, they may file a lawsuit against your business; and as a startup, you’ll have more difficulty recovering.

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Improving accessibility during trying times

The COVID-19 pandemic has created challenging situations for many. Small businesses are relying on financial aid to stay open. Others are adapting to using a virtual workforce. At-risk individuals are self-quarantining at home to minimize their risk of catching and spreading the deadly virus.

Ultimately, prioritizing web accessibility during this time creates a win-win for all. E-commerce retailers will have greater revenue when every little bit counts. Individuals with disabilities won’t have to worry about not being able to buy essential items because of a website that doesn’t address their needs.

The pandemic will end — but our ability to get through it largely depends on helping one another. With website accessibility, e-commerce brands can be part of the solution.

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