business news in context, analysis with attitude

We had a story last Friday about how a blind student at the University of California at Berkeley has filed a class action lawsuit against Target Corp. complaining that “the retailer is committing civil-rights violations because its Web site is inaccessible to those who cannot see,” and that it “denies blind Californians equal access to goods and services available to those who can see.”

The suit, citing the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), says that Target “excludes the blind from full and equal participation in the growing Internet economy that is increasingly a fundamental part of daily life.”

This story generated a number of emails.

MNB user Bill Drew wrote:

Perhaps there is more here than meets the eye (pun intended) and much more to web technology than I am aware of (no doubt in my mind), but it seems to me that this is another misuse of the ADA.

The ADA can't cure this person's blindness any more than it can cure my son who has Down Syndrome and who is mentally retarded. Should I file suit as well and cite the ADA because my son can't click to find the latest CD or DVD he wants to order? I advocate for him every day with the hope that he will be accepted for who he is, limitations and all, but I would never, ever use the ADA in this way. Certainly, it would be in Target's best interest to use the latest technology available so that their website is as user-friendly as possible, but to force them to do so through the ADA? Absurd.

MNB user Brona Cosgrave wrote:

Putting aside any judgment on the validity of such a law suit. Target is just another user of the technology available. Should not such a law suit be directed towards those that provide access to the Internet? If the sound technology exists to allow visually impaired people access the internet via computer page reading, is it not the hardware and/or software providers responsibility to ensure 100% access for all?

MNB user Dan Crooks wrote:

What a crock. And next will they sue Ford or GM because they cannot drive their products? And what about NBC, CBS, ABC, AMC, MSNBC, PBS, and all the thousands of television stations that they cannot watch. This is just another sad example of our litigious society.

Surely a student at Berkeley could find someone to hand them a telephone and provide the phone number of Target so that they might place an order over the phone. Why not sue the owner of a brick and mortar store because they have created window displays that the blind cannot enjoy. When a blind person cannot operate a motor vehicle themselves, few can, they find other means of transportation, perhaps a driver, a taxi, or a bus.

Perhaps there is a business opportunity here, say a service that would read a website to those who cannot read it themselves, be they blind, challenged, illiterate, or just plain lazy.

Maybe this is about creating a web experience that is not so dependent on the ability to see, but isn’t that like trying to create an automobile race that is not dependent on the ability to drive.

Followed to the extreme, every website owner could be sued for this same “offense”.

One MNB user wrote:

I would have thought his first interest would be reading his text books, most of which he would have trouble with, as there would be no Braille version. He isn't suing publishers though, as that would be laughed at as they have been in existence for so long. Perhaps a letter to Target stating how big an audience the blind market is, and that their website is unfriendly to them would have got a better action than this. My Aunt & Uncle are deaf -- together with deaf friends, they boycotted 2 of the larger phone companies here because their SMS rates were excessive. They signed a petition letter of sorts, and now 1 of those phone companies has dropped its rates, AND offered lower monthly access to the group. The other didn't, so it chose to miss out on the business.

We had a story last week about a new Safeway Lifestyle store, but one MNB user has a quibble with the company’s strategy:

Although I applaud Safeway’s efforts to reinvent themselves and try to compete with smarter, leaner, savvier operators, you shouldn’t believe all of the double speak and spin that you hear about this store. Having been intimately involved with the development of it in certain departments, it is a step in the correct direction. However, there are glaring flaws with the store and it’s still just a Safeway. The first problem is the size. This store is massive and hard to shop. I’ve been there in the last week and watched many exasperated customers wander through the store in a daze.

Second, Safeway will not support the labor in order to make this store work. There are a half-dozen or so kiosks that will need to be staffed by at least one person. This store is in a tough market and after the initial phase where Safeway thinks it’s okay to lose money, they will stop this support.

Third, Safeway is still hiring their regular employee to work at the store. When you go to Whole Foods and buy a piece of cheese from their extensive cheese case, the employee knows every single cheese, what it tastes like, they up-sell different items, and make suggestions because they are truly passionate about food. Safeway doesn’t think like this, and they won’t pay enough to attract quality workers to do this. Working at Safeway has about the same air of mystique and charm as working at McDonald’s and it’s how people perceive it. WFM on the other hand…that’s a hot commodity. There is a noticeable difference in terms of the employees and the atmosphere in Safeway and WFM. On a fundamental level, the people at corporate Safeway despise store level labor. WFM is one of Fortune’s top companies to work for for a reason—they realize that labor is their path to the consumer and the best way to represent themselves to consumers.

Fourth, although their product offering is expanded, there are still glaring voids in terms of product. If you look at their cheese case, it’s a sham. Same with the deli. I’m sorry, but foodies are not into Jennie-O turkey. They want Diestel, interesting flavors in items, and stuff with no nitrates/nitrites. And the regular consumer for Whole Foods and TJ’s feels the same way. Being a foodie, I was genuinely disappointed, and I think that the food-conscious citizens of Boulder will be as well. Safeway thinks they are into food, but they aren’t. (Great example from Norcal, because I love wine and know you do to, they merchandise stuff like Kendall Jackson Chardonnay with steaks, and cabernet in the seafood department. Go figure. All it tells me is that they DON’T GET IT.)

Ultimately, what they need to do is to create a strategy that focuses on letting people know what Ingredients for Life stands for. I’ll ask you though: do you really know? They don’t have any brand positioning statements (trust me I’ve asked)! Brian Cornell won an award from Supermarket News for his “re-branding efforts,” but honestly, all he did was create a slogan. Sure the store looks nice, but if Safeway doesn’t fundamentally change their attitude about food, branding, and intelligently losing business, they are going to go the way of the Colorado buffalo and the plains Indians before them.

KC's View: