Oliver Hanna; © ALEXA
Turn left at the next traffic light. The familiar voice on the navigation system guides drivers who don’t have a sense of direction through unknown streets. By comparison, blind people have a much harder time, if they don’t find their way in their surroundings. Now a shopping centre in Berlin offers blind and visually impaired customers at least some help during shopping – with a Blind-Guiding System.
Oliver Hanna, manager of the ALEXA shopping centre in Berlin talks about walking in circles, lack of trust and critical customers.
Mr. Hanna, let’s assume I was blind and I would love to go shopping in your shopping centre. How could you help me with that?
First, I would recommend you register at our information desk on the first floor. You will be able to receive our Blind-Guiding System there and get detailed instructions on how to use it. You will also get an MP3-Player with a podcast and tactile maps.
And what should I do with those?
The tactile map is a type of outline of the individual shopping floors in Braille. Each of the four levels has their own map. They provide general orientation. Then you put on your headset and start the program. Now you will hear information like “You are on the first floor at the information desk“ or “You will reach H&M in 50 meters.“
So will I be guided exactly by the meter to my destination?
Correct. All instructions are measured in meters or steps, because blind people can gauge distances much better than people with normal vision. The audio tape guides customers along each store on a predetermined route. This works well, because the individual stores are circularly arranged on each level. The described path starts at the information desk and also ends there.
But what if I want to visit one store or want to switch to the second floor?
If you go inside the store, you simply stop the audio tape. When you are done shopping and want to continue walking, then restart the audio tape again. When you get to the end of a level, you will be alerted that you now have the chance to switch to another floor. Through your headset you will hear the following instruction when you are on the first floor: “Please take the escalator at the information desk to reach the second level.”
This Berlin mall offers blind and visually impaired customers the opportunity to shop without any barriers and to the top of their bent; © ALEXA
Do you still remember your first customer, who discovered the building this way?
Yes, the first time a couple in their late twenties tested the system. She was blind and he was severally visually impaired. After the instruction they were able to manage well right away and were really thrilled. Unfortunately, last year not many customers made use of our system, to be exact it was only five or six customers.
How do you explain this cautious reaction?
Blind persons simply have their specific routines when they go shopping: If they shop, they are usually in the company of a trusted person. Younger women in their mid twenties are somewhat more adventurous and dare to occasionally come to the shopping centre by themselves. It gets difficult though, when they buy clothes. They quickly ask questions like: “Does this color look good on me?” or “Do those pants fit me?” In this instance, blind persons trust a good friend rather than sales personnel.
How do you plan to reduce the distrust of your customers?
With our Guiding System we not only offer the technical prerequisites for a barrier-free shopping experience, but in addition we also offer trained personnel. We prepare all associates in each store in dealing with blind and visually impaired customers. They receive information on how they should approach blind customers or describe the product to them. It is certainly difficult to establish trust with sales personnel. This is also not something we can force, but at least our associates are well prepared and will not be overwhelmed by a situation. That’s why blind customers should be braver and dare to shop by themselves.
To establish such trust, you also need certain securities. How do you ensure that your system actually guides blind customers safely through your building?
Soon we will conduct some fine tuning: As people who have normal vision, we will have the system guide us with closed eyes from store to store. This is how we can check, how good the instructions really are and whether we might have overlooked possible stumbling blocks. Actually we had such a case right in the beginning: There was a promotional display in front of a store, which was unexpectedly in the way of the customer. The podcast did not alert the customer about this obstacle. The customer kindly alerted us about it though, and we promptly reacted and made a new audio tape. We really are open and grateful at all times for improvement suggestions.
Interview: Nadine Lormis, First publication REHACARE.de
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