Sainsbury’s revamped its Bath branch into the UK’s first-ever sign-language supermarket between 18 and 21 July, in an experiment tied into its 150 Days of Community volunteering effort. 
In the run up to the store’s modification, 100 members of staff learned basic sign language so they could direct deaf customers to the products they were looking for and provide them with any other help they required. Branch chiefs also installed digital screens to give customers quick lessons on how to sign different foodstuffs. To signal the initiative to its community, the branch even commissioned new signage – calling itself ‘Signsbury’s’ for the duration of the four-day trial.
The 150 Days of Community venture is the retail brand’s flagship customer-relations project during the year of its 150th anniversary.
Sainsbury's company secretary and corporate services director Tim Fallowfield said: “We want to be the most inclusive retailer where people love to work and shop, and it’s really important to us that we support both customers and colleagues with hearing difficulties to feel as comfortable as possible in our stores wherever we can.”
Store manager Paul Robertson explained: “When I heard about our 150 Days of Community scheme, I thought it was the perfect time to use the opportunity to explore new ways to make our store more deaf-friendly. We have many hard of hearing customers in Bath and always want to make their experience as brilliant as possible, and we hope Signsbury’s will help better their time in store even more.”
Actor and filmmaker Rachel Shenton – ambassador for the National Deaf Children’s Society – added: “It’s been brilliant to see the colleagues of Sainsbury’s be so engaged in the idea and it’s a great step towards inclusivity for the deaf community. This feels like the start of something exciting and I hope it encourages more people to get involved.”
Long-term News & Views readers will recall that Sainsbury’s has form on this front: in June last year, we reported that the retailer had trialled a ‘slow checkout’ lane for dementia sufferers at a store in Prestwick, Scotland. At the time, a Sainsbury’s spokesperson said: “Our aim is to be the most inclusive retailer and we want all of our customers to have a great shopping experience in our stores.”
What does the Bath-branch initiative say about the leadership challenges of creating a truly inclusive customer experience?
The Institute of Leadership & Management head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “What this sign-language branch tells us is just how comprehensive inclusivity ventures need to be. Especially when we consider that for a single Sainsbury’s branch, they had to tweak its infrastructure with the addition of screens, train staff in signing and get the word out to customers so as many people as possible would be involved. As one of the UK’s biggest retail brands, Sainsbury’s has around 1,400 stores. That really puts into perspective the effort that would be required to replicate the Signsbury’s initiative on a wider scale.”
Cooper notes: “It takes a huge amount of investment to deliver the benefits of a more inclusive workforce – and we at the Institute say over and over again that staff bases must more accurately reflect the customers they seek to serve. Firms that hardwire inclusivity into their workforces know that they are in a better position to deliver a good service than their less-inclusive competitors, because they automatically have a more rounded and detailed grasp of what their customers want.”
She adds: “I welcome the Bath branch initiative. As well as providing great publicity for Sainsbury’s, it’s doing something good for the hearing-impaired community and showing other companies the sorts of services you need to roll out to make the customer experience more inclusive. It also emphasises how much effort, will, enthusiasm and energy people have to put into initiatives like this.”
The Institute is planning to hold a UK Deaf Leadership Summit in Loughborough next year, currently scheduled to take place in March. Please keep checking this site in the coming months for further details as the plans are finalised.
For further insights on the themes raised in this blog, check out the Institute’s resources on appreciating diversity
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Image of Sainsbury’s branch courtesy of 1000 Words, via Shutterstock