Ah, Christmas shopping. The smart ones among us started in August, have all their wrapping done, and are putting their feet up and smirking as they listen to the rest of us mere mortals bemoaning the hazards of shopping in December.
Assuming you've written your Christmas list, grabbed your shopping bags, made it through the barely moving traffic, survived the onslaught of Christmas music from every radio station, put your parking ticket "somewhere safe", sworn to start earlier next year, dodged the people trudging directly toward you with their smartphone glued to the end of their nose, gone down in the dodgy lift (because the good one's broken from over-use - again), and found your way around the sprawling labyrinth of your local town centre, you may well soon enter a department store.
This rather American sounding title covers anywhere you can buy both clothing and cutlery made by designers with unpronounceable names. If you are in urgent need of a lemon zester or shoes in a slightly more subtle shade of silver, you're in the right place. Generally speaking, I avoid such places. They are specifically designed to send you into a daydream about how your food would taste so much better on a slate, no matter how badly burnt. The perfume counters in the entrance way are a covert form of chemical warfare. To cut a long and descriptive paragraph a bit shorter, it'd been a while since I'd been to a department store.
However, I needed a dress, and had heard rumours of a sale on some very sparkly ones. There was only one thing in my way: all the other dresses. It's a strange phenomenon, but it's so common that the retail industry has a word for overstocked areas impeding customers: "unshoppable". Every zone of sparkly dresses was unshoppable, yet had I needed a novelty duvet set there would have been no problem. Coats, penguin jumpers and more chocolate than is really necessary in a clothing section, no problem.
Something strange was going on. I arranged to meet with the Health & Safety Manager, and was pleasantly surprised that the Head of Health & Safety had travelled in from London to see the situation for himself. It's amazing what happens when you quote the Equality Act 2010 in friendly emails. Interestingly, there was only one wheelchair accessible table in their café; the others were too close together. I listened carefully.
The department store (who I will not name and shame, in the interests of mutual cooperation and Christmas spirit) has its layouts planned months ahead using a computer system that can map the location of every shelf, manikin and rail. The type of stock those shelves will hold is taken into account, and walkways are designed to be a minimum of 900mm.
At this point in the conversation I pointed out that this map of the perfect, precision optimised retail heaven was very different to the narrow, cramped walkways between the sparkly dresses not 20 metres away. They nodded, and explained that some areas of the store are not under their direct control. The shop floor is a patchwork, with portions rented to different designers by the square foot, and the decisions over how stock is displayed in each area are carried out by that designer. However, they felt sure that the majority of the designer clothing areas would have better access than the store's own label.
Those rose tinted spectacles were quickly smashed as I guided them around the floor. There was only one area where my wheelchair and I made it to the back wall, and a dozen sparkly dresses I liked but couldn't get close to. Several times I drove enthusiastically through the maze, only to have to politely ask these two gentlemen to move in order for me to reverse. In one zone, the low lighting, dark coloured winter woollens and lack of space made me want to stay in that area for no longer than absolutely necessary, and I explained that a stressed customer is less likely to part with their cash.
These designers need to take one very simple fact into account: If a wheelchair user, buggy pusher, shopping bag carrier or small child hand-holder cannot easily get to your latest must-have, it will not be flying off the rails and making those tills sing. If we can't get to it, we won't buy it.
Proof? The department store's own fashion area, with similar styles and price points to some of the designers featured nearby, nevertheless brings in more money per square foot than any of the rest by a significant margin. Accessible retail environments make more money - case closed.
The Health & Safety Managers assured me that they would be looking into this problem, and have invited me to come back in a few months to see what progress had been made. In the meantime, I need to finish my Christmas shopping, online.