In the loop: how technology can enhance customer service for the hearing impaired –UK’s largest disabled group

The spending power of disabled customers in the UK is estimated at £249bn.  But the high street is yet to maximise income from the ‘Purple Pound’ because of a lack of awareness, poorly-maintained facilities or assistive technology that could smooth the interaction between customer and staff.  

The largest group within the disabled community is people with hearing loss - yet just one in 10 retail premises have installed a hearing loop. 

Following Purple Tuesday, the UK’s first accessible shopping day, Andrew Thomas from Contacta Systems looks at how – and why – hearing loop technology should be central to making shopping more inclusive.  

The high street is well-used to considering adaptations to make premises accessible to those with physical disabilities – automated doorways, wheelchair-accessible toilets, entrance ramps and lowered counters are all features that are recognisable in stores.

But the majority of people with a disability are those with a hearing impairment.  One in six – nearly 11 million people – have some form of hearing loss and many of them use a hearing aid.  

Hearing loss is referred to as a ‘hidden disability’ because it is something that may not be visible to staff member during a transaction.  A customer may not feel confident to reveal they can’t hear and may be too embarrassed to ask for information to be repeated.  

In some instances, a hearing-impaired customer may not even get as far as the service counter because the store environment is just too challenging to hear clearly in.

Retailers’ obligations

The Equality Act 2010 states that everyone should be treated equally and requires service providers to “make changes, where needed, to improve services for disabled customers or potential customers."

“Potential customers” is a key point – retailers have to offer an accessible environment for everyone who may come into their store.   

The Act requires premises to make “reasonable adjustments” where a customer – or indeed, a staff member - is at ‘substantial disadvantage’ because of their hearing loss.   

What constitutes “reasonable” is not clearly defined but will depend on the nature of the retail business, the size and turnover of the store and the relative costs involved.  So what may be deemed reasonable for a major supermarket will be different to what’s expected of an independent retail outlet. 

Best practice

Equality legislation is informed by standards of best practice so retailers are well-advised to be aware of British Standards that represent a benchmark for creating inclusive environments. 

British Standards Institute BS8300 has been revised earlier this year in response to changes in lifestyle and technology.  This standard aims to ensure public premises are better prepared for the future, more accessible and inclusive for all members of society.  

The BS8300 guidelines are particularly important for those building new stores or refurbishing existing premises.  “Inclusive” is the key term here as the desire is for everyone’s needs to be met in the same space rather than having a separate entrance or facility set aside for someone with additional needs. 

For the first time, the guidelines address, in detail, the needs of people with hearing loss and offer specific examples of how premises can meet them.  Central to this is the provision of hearing loops.

The role of hearing loops

Retail environments can have a great deal of background noise.  Background music played in fashion outlets, hard surface noise in supermarkets, PA announcements or poor sound masking in restaurants can all mean even conversation can be challenging to someone with a hearing aid because it amplifies all the sound.  Add to that passing high street traffic or the coffee machine in an in-store café and a sale is lost before it has begun.

Hearing or ‘induction’ loops cut out background noise and amplify the sound a person wants to hear.  The loop converts speech picked up by a microphone into a magnetic signal.  This is transmitted by a loop aerial and is picked up by the telecoil in a wearer’s hearing aid where it is converted back to its original sound.  

In the majority of settings, transactions are on a one to one basis at a service counter or a checkout.  Customers want to be able to ask for what they need and clearly hear the response to avoid the embarrassment of repeating themselves, receiving the incorrect item or an inappropriate service.

Counter loops offer a discreet microphone that picks up the staff member’s voice and the transmitting cable aerial can be concealed in the counter unit.  Signage at the point of sale tells customers to switch their hearing aid to the ‘T’ position and a clear conversation can take place.

But beware of an off-the-shelf solution installed without specialist advice.  The fabric of the counter unit needs to be assessed as well as the location of features such as power sources and air conditioning systems, both of which could affect the loop’s performance.

The metal inherent in checkout conveyor belts and the tills themselves was an important factor in calculations for one-to-one hearing loops at ASDA stores throughout the UK.  In line with BS8300 guidelines, the FMCG retailer has committed to installing a loop at every checkout and customer interaction point in its new and refurbished stores.  

Liz Williams, Senior Manager of Retail Specification and Design for Asda said: “We offer hearing loops to provide an inclusive service for our hard of hearing customers.  We incorporate loops into the design, or re-design, of our stores so that we know we have the coverage that’s needed and that they will work effectively for customers.” 

Portable solutions

Healthcare retailers also need to consider the issue of confidentiality.  Customers don’t want to stand at a pharmacy counter and have their enquiry dealt with at a volume that they – and several other people beside them – can hear.  

These retailers may also have consulting rooms where customers can discuss personal issues or receive treatments, and portable loops allow smooth communication with staff in both settings.

With no need to install wiring, portable solutions are also a cost-effective option for small stores, whether they be a ‘local’ offering from a supermarket chain or an independent retailer.  

But what’s key in their use is staff training and maintenance.  The systems needs to be regularly checked to make sure it’s working, charged up and staff need to be aware where the unit is located and how to use it.  

A sound investment

In the current challenging market, retailers may be reluctant to invest in loop technology.  But with the majority of those with hearing loss being over 65, and an ageing population, the potential customer base inclusive technology could draw into store is growing.  

And as initiatives like Purple Tuesday place greater emphasis on the UK high street making lasting changes to premises for its less able customers, those who choose to invest now will reap the benefits.

Andrew Thomas is the Market Development Director of Contacta Systems Ltd and has more than 30 years’ experience in the sector.  He compiled content for the BS 8300 annex on induction loops.  He is also Chair of the International Hearing Loop Manufacturers Association (IHLMA.)

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