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During the Christmas period, more people turn to online channels to purchase gifts, positioning the internet as a vital means of revenue for retailers across the UK. A number of companies, however, may have found that their existing websites inhibited their ability to maximise sales. Without accessible websites, they are losing valuable custom.

But when the stakes are so high, why is it that so many retailers are failing to meet basic accessibility requirements? Leonie Watson, head of accessibility, Nomensa, says: "A lot of websites are based on technology that's been around for a long time - before accessibility was something to be aware of. But for the big high-street retailers, their budgets mean that they should be able to do something about it.

"A lot of people think that website accessibility demands a sweeping overhaul. If they can't do it all, they won't do anything. But a few small adjustments can make a huge a difference. Simple measures like including alternative text descriptions on images, writing clear link text and creating proper headings and lists in the code can make it much easier for people like me who use a screen reader."

All websites should comply with the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA), which requires that organisations with a website do not discriminate against certain users. Despite this being an obligation on both the client and the website designer, many companies are failing to comply with the DDA, the Web Accessibility Initiative (W3C) and Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).

Kevin Carey, director, HumanITy, believes that there is no excuse not to have a fully accessible website. "Companies must understand that they are breaking the law if their websites don't meet accessibility guidelines," he said. "I deeply resent the idea that people might be umming and ahing over whether they're going to introduce an accessible website that I can use when they have a legal requirement to do so."

Changing minds

Legal requirements aside, creating an accessible website has a range of knock-on effects that can deliver real benefits across the business.

Emily Taylor, director of legal and policy at Nominet and member of the advisory group for the Internet Governance Forum (IGF), says: "We, as businesses, often view things in terms of cost rather than thinking of the business benefits. If your website is accessible, it will be viewable on old and new browsers, the pages will load faster and people are more likely to visit them for longer periods of time. Universal access becomes good for everyone; it goes beyond providing access to the blind, illiterate or elderly, you'll reach and retain more customers overall."

Nomensa's Watson believes that there needs to be a perception change at a senior level. She says: "There seems to be an almost instinctive reaction when you're talking about equality or disability to see it as some kind of socialist shout. With a conservative estimate of one in 10 disabled people in Britain, it's time that directors took notice.

"If you went into your sales director and explained that you were actively turning away one in 10 customers from the doors of your shop, they would have a fit. It makes a real difference when you translate the situation to a bricks-and-mortar scenario."

Design and user testing

Whether companies take advantage of their in-house resources or approach a specialist company, a full audit is essential. Next comes the decision to either retro-engineer their existing sites or start from scratch at a lower cost. Once businesses have assessed the best approach to suit them, many of them will have to take a look at how they design their websites.

Carey contends that one of the key barriers to creating accessible websites is the design process. He says: "A lot of companies don't user test their websites. That's a serious problem because web design is often treated more like an art form than engineering. People take shortcuts in how they build code - they can make a website work but there's no standardised approach. Designers frequently break basic rules. They'll make a whole website accessible but the homepage will only be clickable. If you're not using a mouse, and you can't use the enter key to move beyond the homepage, a website is blocked to vision-impaired users."

According to Carey, all good web design can be boiled down to three simple rules:

1.Design in a granular way so that any aspect from print to colour can be modified easily.

2.Design in such a way that your content can work on all platforms - online, mobile or TV.

3.Design multi modally - this means to make information as if it were television material with combined text, audio and pictures.

Catriona Campbell, chairman of The Usability Company, believes that the proper application of web analytics and user-centred design can help companies make their websites more accessible. She says: "A lot of companies are failing because they have not set up their tracking and measurement tools correctly. In addition, their design agencies often don't carry out independent research on the design of the site. Getting users involved in the process is a must for a brand, and, shockingly, seldom done.

"Companies have to create 'personas' - profiles of typical user behaviour and test their sites against them regularly. New Look is an interesting example of a site that has a 'community' of users who act as guinea pigs for new functionality - they are invited to take part in surveys and, as brand champions, are interested in making the New Look site work."

Staying competitive

As the internet moves into different channels, creating usable, accessible websites becomes even more pressing. Mobile commerce, for example, is set to grow in importance as a retail channel so companies must start to look at how they can reach as many users as possible.

James Pearce, chief technology officer at dotMobi, believes that companies interested in embracing the mobile internet must always keep users in the mind. He says: "The mobile is a very personal device. Browsing the web on a mobile is completely different from using a PC. The user is in a different frame of mind, they're likely to be on the move so time is precious. Information needs to be clear and to-the-point.

"With different screens, browsers and keypads on a range of phones, you also need to make sure that a website works just as well on an iPhone as it does on a three-year old Nokia, for example. If companies think about their users individually and always keep them in mind, they'll be on the right track."

Paying the price for inaction

While legal requirements are rarely enforced, the consequences of failing to act can have a dramatic impact on retailers' bottom lines. If businesses don't start to take accessibility and usability seriously, they are likely to lose customers as their competitors embrace best practices.

Watson says: "It's quite simple. Retailers who don't have accessible websites are going to lose money. Being vision-impaired, I used to battle to find ways around inaccessible websites, but now I don't waste my time. There are retailers out there who are making the effort to make things easier for me and I will always choose them over their competitors. Companies who don't embrace accessibility are losing brand loyalty. If they don't make it easy to shop with them, they're failing as a retailer."