Merriam-Webster's word of the year for 2019? ‘They,' the common English pronoun. Webster expressed surprise at the overwhelming public interest in the word, experiencing a 313% increase in searches for the term across its site this year.
But with a look back at significant moments in media, culture and commerce that transpired over the past year, the popularity of the word is perhaps not so surprising—and can be understood as a clear indication of a long overdue, seismic shift taking place around inclusivity. While in entertainment, singer Sam Smith sent out viral social media blasts announcing their official choice to use ‘they' and ‘them' in self referral, in fashion, non-binary models Grace Oslo and Ayesha Tan Jones took the industry by storm with their popularity and activism. And while the Victoria's Secret annual fashion show met its end, Rihanna's Savage X Fenty took the spotlight, showcasing a diverse catwalk and promoting body positivity.
So, what's the significance of these moments for business? Within retail in particular, it's becoming evident that brands and vendors can no longer afford not to be inclusive: A consumer study by First Insight found that after a retailer’s launch of offensive merchandise, 55% of women would no longer shop at the maker for a period of time, compared with 42% of men (1). Further, 71% of women and 64% of men say they would require a clean track record of at least six months before returning to the retailer.* On the activism and representation front, a retail report from Accenture found that 60% of shoppers want brands to have a voice in important issues, and 55% of consumers would stop shopping a brand that didn’t take responsibility for neglecting diversity (2).
It is within this context that PSFK conducted research on how inclusivity is manifesting today, identifying three major fronts where leading brands and retailers are making waves of progress: inclusivity of ability, ensuring that consumers with any level of physical or mental capacity can access and make use of products and services; inclusivity of identity, integrating the representation of any and all people across brand touchpoints; and inclusivity of utility, parlaying retail's increasing decentralization and hyper-personalization into serving each unique consumer's needs in any place, at any time.
Retailers across categories are transforming their products and services to be increasingly malleable, and thereby able to alter in accordance with consumers' differing levels of ability. To accommodate consumers with autism, supermarket Morrisons and discount store Home Bargain started similar quiet-hour initiatives that include lowering of lights and elimination of music to enable a sensory experience that is more comfortable and navigable. Similarly, Sesame Street's theme park integrated measures against overstimulation like quiet rooms and noise-canceling headphones to foster special needs-friendly environments.
To assist blind and low-vision shoppers, grocers Shufersal and Wegmans both created mobile app experiences that provide in-store aid by bridging the digital-physical divide, the former offering audio descriptions of surroundings to help with navigation, and the latter connecting customers to a live operator who can provide on-demand guidance through the store and on groceries needed. For kids, LEGO Group created braille and audio-enabled guides to assist the visually impaired in building structures and expressing their creativity.
For the deaf and hearing challenged, Starbucks opened a Signing Store in Guangzhou, China, which accommodates customers with digital displays and notepads for ordering and announcing items ready for pickup. It also promotes the employment of hearing-disabled staff. Zappos used wearable technology to enable deaf attendees of its Life is Beautiful concert to experience the music through vibration. Australian brand Metromatics built MetroSpec LCD bus displays that implement hearing loop as well as text-to-voice functionalities to help both the hearing and visually impaired use transportation.
Other travel innovations include Uber's collaboration with MVTransportation to enable rides accessible to passengers in wheelchairs, and Delta Air Lines' implementation of sign language on the crew's uniforms to direct flyers to members' who can sign.
Brands and vendors the world over are expanding their representation of and relevance to an increasing number of social and personal identities, from gender, race and age to sexuality, spirituality, nationality and many more. One vertical making waves in diversity and inclusivity in particular right now is beauty: While Birchbox collaborated with media platform R29 Unbothered to build two insights-backed beauty discovery boxes specifically for Black female customers, cruelty-free cosmetics brand Rageism creates products for older women while promoting consumers' own social media posts to enable authentic and diverse advertising. Sephora, a pioneer of many inclusive initiatives, actually shuttered various stores and offices to train its U.S.-based employees on inclusion and sensitivity, simultaneously launching its “We Belong To Something Beautiful” pledge to showcase its dedication to further diversity efforts.
Fashion, too, has seen an explosion of inclusive and diversifying efforts, catering to consumers of all colors, sizes and preferences. On the subject of size inclusivity, Universal Standard is the industry winner, providing all items in sizes 00 to 40. Alexandra Waldman, one of the brand's co-founders, explained that for her, inclusivity went far beyond merchandising and advertising, however, also applying to the e-commerce experience: “We tried to create a shopping experience that women will actually love. We launched “See It In Your Size” across our website, which lets shoppers click a button and transform the entire website into their particular size. We thought about how nice it would be for our customer to know, with confidence, what a product might look like on her body. Again, it’s about representation and making everyone feel considered.”
But beyond expanding the identities and individuals they can reach, a growing spate of brands is also helping consumers forgo identity altogether, enabling genderless and neutral products that simply let people be. One of these makers for all is non-binary apparel startup TomboyX—the brand known for creating hit products directly from individual customer feedback. Beyond hyper-valuing consumer insights, the genderless and size-inclusive label offers sizes ranging from XS to 4X and features a manifesto in lieu of an ‘About' section on its site.
In beauty, Birchbox recently made noise with a revolutionary rebrand, updating its categories to Beauty and Grooming instead of Women's and Men's to showcase its commitment to both internal and external diversity. Amanda Tolleson, the brand's chief customer officer, told PSFK, “It’s critical to focus on staying relevant in a modern world and allow your brand to flex and be fluid. Beauty is a progressive industry, and we realized we had a lot of work to do to catch up with consumer expectations of brands in today’s climate—not to mention we wanted to align the user experience with our own core values as a company.”
As PSFK showcased in its flagship Future Of Retail report this year, the retailscape of 2020 and beyond will evolve from the current DTC boom and transcend the experiential to focus on personal utility and hyper-customization, using next-gen tech and innovation to service each unique consumer's need in any place, at any time.
Synching with and altering to individual cases from moment to moment will be key, and certain pioneering brands are already paving the way for this capability. Google's mobile shopping experience can curate a location-based product inventory in real time and direct users to specific items around them thanks to its ‘nearby' feature. Domino's Delivery Hotspots is already bringing pizza directly to customers in parks, in sports fields, on beaches and in other public, outdoor areas. Even in slower retail for bigger, luxury purchases, startup Curated is making on-demand, expert guidance a reality, connecting travel and sports enthusiasts with aficionados who can pick them the right product for their specific skill level, needs and taste whenever they desire.
Considering these next-level consumer-centric capabilities, imagine the opportunities that such a personalized and localized retailscape could hold for meeting needs beyond those of preference and convenience, moving to address those related to ability and identity. The beginnings are here: Be My Eyes is an app service that connects the visually impaired with on-demand volunteers who can remotely describe the former's surroundings and help them navigate—all through the lens of a smartphone. Find Refuge is another mobile-based service targeted at transgender people to help them find gender-neutral or single-stall restrooms near them, even including ratings from other users.
Beyond the instant, personalized curation that the likes of Google Shopping and Nike Live stores can provide, what about an environment itself inherently and deeply malleable enough to immerse individuals in an experience completely tailored to them? What about a future where an ecommerce platform or IRL store can immediately adapt to—or even anticipate—an individual's preferences and needs, reformatting its manifestation for that user's identity preferences, personal traits, and ability to hear, see, smell, feel, take in, tolerate and comprehend stimuli and information? Furthermore, in such an adaptable environment, would differing levels of capability or varying identity as established within society's current infrastructure and context have the same meaning?
While some of the tech necessary for this type of responsive, adaptive experience is already here (AI, machine-learning, AR, VR), the rest is on the way: According to a Ted Talk given by Skylar Tibbits, founder of MIT's Self-Assembly lab, 4D printing can allow for materials that adapt their form and function in response to external stimuli—perhaps the precursors of fully personalizable environments, in retail and beyond? Ultimately, as retail becomes more about personal utility, it is by definition increasingly synched with each unique use case, across all human experience, ability, identity, need and desire. The possibilities are yet untold for how flexibly we will be able to construct and navigate our own personal world—and potentially build the most inclusive one yet.