Retail Therapy: 5 Lessons to Apply to Deaf and Hard of Hearing Customers

Posted by: Staff Writer on March 25, 2014

Images of shuttered businesses and liquidation sales are sending a message to entrepreneurs everywhere: The “Death of Retail” is nigh. Just look at JC Penney’s plummeting stock, compared to Amazon’s ever-soaring stock price. No one ever leaves their home to shop until they drop anymore, right?

Not so fast: Despite all the click-happy shopping apps online, the truth is e-commerce businesses only account for 5 percent of total sales in the United States.

That means the 95 percent still has to woo, and interact, with actual customers in-person. That includes deaf and hard of hearing customers, a minority that is about 10 percent of the population.

It’s not just about product – sell the customer service and ambience, too

Whether you’re selling on price (think: Wal-Mart) or selling on quality (think: Nordstrom), you can never afford to skimp on customer service or creating a deaf-friendly atmosphere.

The Devil is in the details, and that includes creating an ambience that attracts your deaf and hard of hearing customers.

Just look at Borders, which filed for bankruptcy protection in 2011. Remember its floor layout? Not a lot of seating for bookworms to linger, and a cramped, not-for-socializing cafe nook shoved in the corner. These are just a couple reasons that experts cited for Borders’ demise. Whether your business is a bookstore, or a café, or clothing retailer, make sure it is well-lit enough for a deaf person to comfortably speech read you. Pay close attention to whether the layout invites interactivity amongst friends within a Deaf Community.

Show, don’t (just) tell

Ask any 7-year-old what she prefers to experience at school: A story about a boa constrictor, or the chance to actually touch the smooth, cool scales of a reptile. Though some are squeamish, “show” is universally more popular than “tell.”

The same concept applies to wooing a deaf or hard of hearing customer into a purchase. Don’t be shy when you encounter a deaf or hard of hearing customer. Encourage her to try on the oh-so-soft cashmere throw. Offer them a sample of the bakery special. Let him sample the spritz of a perfume he’s trying to buy for his special lady. Special sales maneuvers that engage deaf and hard of hearing individuals go a long way, when trying to woo an indecisive customer.

Even if your business has a storefront, don’t forget Web accessibility

Make no mistake about it: The Internet has become a great equalizer for many customers who have disabilities. No longer does a deaf person need to open up a phone book to ask what time your store opens – he can simply run a search engine query for local store hours.

But somewhere along the transition from brick-and-mortar to click-and-mortar, many geeks (or DIY developers) of the retail world forgot to create a hospitable site for the deaf and hard of hearing. Eager to boost their SEO, many retail sites post videos … only to forget adding captions. Some, like eBay, infamously required automated phone calls as part of its identity verification system – a move that shunned a deaf customer into a lawsuit in 2010.

Walk the talk - literally

In the retail world, a large percentage of your job revolves around navigation and organization. Whether you’re a manager or cashier, you’ll inevitably be asked where a certain product is. “To get to the strollers, just go down that way past the electronics, go upstairs, walk towards the cosmetics, and make a left” can be hard to speech read. Plus, in a bustling megastore, who can remember all these directions?

So, go for a brisk walk with a deaf customer. It’s often a lot easier than verbally explaining the labyrinth that leads to the baby products.

Exercise integrity and transparency

Believe it or not, it’s not that simple to pull the wool over the eyes of a deaf and hard of hearing customer … and not just because we are visually reliant for speech reading and sign language. Remember how Wal-Mart’s retail strategy bombed in Japan? To make a long story short, it’s because it couldn’t earn its trust.

Same thing for courting deaf and hard of hearing customers. Being left out of conversations doesn’t predispose one to become gullible: If anything, your average deaf or hard of hearing customer relies on research, word of mouth, and due diligence far more than a hearing customer. If a deaf person is looking for the best deal on winter tires, s/he most likely will ask trusted peers within the Deaf Community. Your business’ reputation precedes you: Build it with integrity.

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