On Handicapped Access, Target Fights the Wrong Fight for the Wrong Reason

Opinion: When a judge agreed that a lawsuit from the National Federation for the Blind can proceed against Target's Web site, e-commerce executives should have breathed a collective sigh of relief. They didn't.

When a federal judge in California agreed that a lawsuit from the National Federation for the Blind can proceed against Target, e-commerce executives should have breathed a collective sigh of relief.

The lawsuit essentially argues that Targets online operation violated the American with Disabilities Act because it is not designed to be easily accessible to blind users.

Targets defense has been that the ADA does not explicitly talk about Web sites, so, Target reasons, its not covered.

That argument is wrong for so many reasons.

For the moment, lets set aside that the argument is wrong legally (the California judge already dealt with that one).

From Targets perspective, its more relevant that the answer is wrong from a marketing, customer service and an IT and design perspective.

The original intent of ADA was to allow consumers with physical handicaps the same access to public places—including retailers—as the rest of the public.

The e-commerce sites of large retailers today are natural extensions of their physical storefronts and the intent of the initial law clearly should apply to Web sites.

What if Target took this argument to its next stage and decided that discrimination laws and hate laws didnt apply to their Web site because those federal laws—many of which were written long before todays Web was prominent—didnt specifically mention them? Would it feel free to flout those laws on its Web site by publishing racial slurs and hate-filled death threats?

E-commerce is such an ingrained part of retail today that all physical laws—where possible—must apply.

But even if Target had a more sound defense to this litigation, why in the world would it want to pursue it?

Why is it spending a mountain of legal dollars to justify keeping a large segment of potential consumers from easily using its site? And its doing so in a very public manner.

Lets take a look at what is at play here. To make a large site such as Targets accessible, it needs to add in text mouse-overs (alt-text) so that screen readers can speak what images represent.

But many highly designed sites simply dont work without being able to see the images, so a more radical redesign is often required.

Those more substantial redesigns can cost money, but its not an obscene amount.

A site such as Targets would likely cost anywhere from $800,000 to $2 million to make accessible.

Although not pocket change, its a one-time expense that Target could easily absorb.

Their legal costs in fighting this—not to mention the loss of business from the associated bad publicity—will surely be more.

But ROI concerns are also not the real reason for Target to not fight this.

The real reason to make those one-time changes is that it would result in a more-efficient, faster and simply superior e-commerce site for all consumers.

For years, retailers have gone for flash (as well as Flash) and multimedia and arresting graphics with little regard to download time, increased probability of programming glitches and incompatibilities.

With multiple OSes, different browsers, tons of updated add-ons, firewalls, spyware/pop-up blockers and computer screen sizes, its hard enough getting a design that will work for all.

Add to this todays mobile demands (PDAs, smart phones) and site design is going to find it more difficult to present one appearance to all.

And yet, having multiple versions of the identical site rarely makes sense, and it certainly would be a nightmare for retailers with constantly changing stock and prices.

Maybe a car company could get away with it, but probably not.

The types of changes that the ADA is asking of retailers Web sites would—unintentionally—make so much of that better.

It can then be justified under the marketing-friendly label of making the site more open to all.

The question of retail sensitivity to those without perfect is nothing new.

A wide range of recent stories have shown retailers being more open to visually impaired consumers, from Wal-Marts reportedly investigating a robot to help blind shoppers in the aisles, various site design strategies about making Web pages more vision-neutral and studies on how different sites work for color-blind consumers.

/zimages/1/28571.gifRead more here about Wal-Mart testing robots for visually impaired shoppers.

Terry Golesworthy is the CEO of a research firm called The Customer Respect Group. (I probably should say that its a group that apparently doesnt include certain Target execs, but Ill be nice and not say that.)

Golesworthys firm watches major retail sites and assesses how well they handle consumer interaction issues, including site accessibility.

"I think Target is just the unfortunate test case, but it is nowhere near the only company to be at risk," he said.

"The clarity the case might bring to the area of accessibility means we might see a lot of projects fired up for defensive reasons. The Y2K issue is the closest thing we have seen recently that might be an analogy.

"This is, of course, smaller, but represents the same type of potential behavior with executive management throwing money at a problem they really do not understand but have a perceived business downside. This time, though, its for litigious and PR reasons."

Next Page: How other retailers fare with accessibility.