A vision of better shopping for the impaired

September 18, 2012

People with sight challenges have a powerful website tool to expand their food repertoires at home.

Ever think about the food-shopping challenges of the blind and visually impaired? Or the incremental growth that retailers and CPG could earn by making trips an easier experience for 21.5 million Americans (American Foundation for the Blind) unable to read food packages at the shelf? 

This significant audience shops from a narrower set of products than typical consumers because they only buy what they know about. Walking down a store aisle, they can’t physically read all the packages available, so their practical choices are limited. Searching products on a computer screen, they read only one line at a time, so the process is slow.

Therefore, Camille Caffarelli, founder and executive director of Horizons for the Blind (HFTB), told The Lempert Report that people with visual impairments rely on others to shop with them—either a friend or relative to go along, or a store worker assigned to a pre-scheduled appointment. But these latter experiences are hit and miss if stores are too busy or an employee isn’t too helpful, she adds.  

All of the visually driven efforts of CPG and retailers to promote sales and brand switching, or convey useful information about products or recipes, or otherwise engage shoppers are largely lost on people who have trouble seeing. With the HFTB website,www.directionsforme.org, Ms. Caffarelli, a Braille reader herself, is trying to “level the playing field and allow people to do things they couldn’t do before without asking someone. We’re interested in eating healthier too.” 

The site relies on the Gladson database of more than 400,000 food, beverage, HBC and GM product images to allow this community to “read” preparation instructions, ingredients, nutritional facts, allergy warnings and other label details. The site actually conveys this information in three ways—via text-to-speech readers, magnifiers, braille output devices and Web-enabled cell phones. The site has had 44 million hits over the past 18 months, she says.

Gladson content will also populate an app being developed for a 2013 release. In stores with wifi, shoppers will be able to scan products and know what they are by listening to audio or viewing a larger font on a smartphone screen. “These are examples of the growing use of product information and images to give people the information they need, in the form they need, in the time and place they need,” says Stephen Cole, chief marketing officer, Gladson. “They give the visually impaired mobility in stores they never had before.”

HFTB also looks to kick off a CPG Advisory Board with an autumn 2012 event in greater Chicago. The goal is to develop partnerships that serve this community, informed by insights of a separate board of the visually impaired.  

The Lempert Report hopes this effort inspires CPG and retailers to find ways to help the visually impaired shop more effectively—perhaps with special shopping hours, large print circulars and more.