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When a federal judge in California agreed that a lawsuit from the National Federation for the Blind can proceed against Target, e-commerce executives should have breathed a collective sigh of relief.

The lawsuit essentially argues that Target’s online operation violated the American with Disabilities Act because it is not designed to be easily accessible to blind users.

Target’s defense has been that the ADA does not explicitly talk about Web sites, so, Target reasons, it’s not covered.

That argument is wrong for so many reasons.

For the moment, let’s set aside that the argument is wrong legally (the California judge already dealt with that one).

From Target’s perspective, it’s more relevant that the answer is wrong from a marketing, customer service and an IT and design perspective.

The original intent of ADA was to allow consumers with physical handicaps the same access to public places—including retailers—as the rest of the public.

The e-commerce sites of large retailers today are natural extensions of their physical storefronts and the intent of the initial law clearly should apply to Web sites.

What if Target took this argument to its next stage and decided that discrimination laws and hate laws didn’t apply to their Web site because those federal laws—many of which were written long before today’s Web was prominent—didn’t specifically mention them? Would it feel free to flout those laws on its Web site by publishing racial slurs and hate-filled death threats?

E-commerce is such an ingrained part of retail today that all physical laws—where possible—must apply.

But even if Target had a more sound defense to this litigation, why in the world would it want to pursue it?

Why is it spending a mountain of legal dollars to justify keeping a large segment of potential consumers from easily using its site? And it’s doing so in a very public manner.

Let’s take a look at what is at play here. To make a large site such as Target’s accessible, it needs to add in text mouse-overs (alt-text) so that screen readers can speak what images represent.

But many highly designed sites simply don’t work without being able to see the images, so a more radical redesign is often required.

Those more substantial redesigns can cost money, but it’s not an obscene amount.

A site such as Target’s would likely cost anywhere from $800,000 to $2 million to make accessible.

Although not pocket change, it’s a one-time expense that Target could easily absorb.

Their legal costs in fighting this—not to mention the loss of business from the associated bad publicity—will surely be more.

But ROI concerns are also not the real reason for Target to not fight this.

The real reason to make those one-time changes is that it would result in a more-efficient, faster and simply superior e-commerce site for all consumers.

For years, retailers have gone for flash (as well as Flash) and multimedia and arresting graphics with little regard to download time, increased probability of programming glitches and incompatibilities.

With multiple OSes, different browsers, tons of updated add-ons, firewalls, spyware/pop-up blockers and computer screen sizes, it’s hard enough getting a design that will work for all.

Add to this today’s mobile demands (PDAs, smart phones) and site design is going to find it more difficult to present one appearance to all.

And yet, having multiple versions of the identical site rarely makes sense, and it certainly would be a nightmare for retailers with constantly changing stock and prices.

Maybe a car company could get away with it, but probably not.

The types of changes that the ADA is asking of retailers’ Web sites would—unintentionally—make so much of that better.

It can then be justified under the marketing-friendly label of making the site more open to all.

The question of retail sensitivity to those without perfect is nothing new.

A wide range of recent stories have shown retailers being more open to visually impaired consumers, from Wal-Mart’s reportedly investigating a robot to help blind shoppers in the aisles, various site design strategies about making Web pages more vision-neutral and studies on how different sites work for color-blind consumers.

Read more here about Wal-Mart testing robots for visually impaired shoppers.

Terry Golesworthy is the CEO of a research firm called The Customer Respect Group. (I probably should say that it’s a group that apparently doesn’t include certain Target execs, but I’ll be nice and not say that.)

Golesworthy’s firm watches major retail sites and assesses how well they handle consumer interaction issues, including site accessibility.

“I think Target is just the unfortunate test case, but it is nowhere near the only company to be at risk,” he said.

“The clarity the case might bring to the area of accessibility means we might see a lot of projects fired up for defensive reasons. The Y2K issue is the closest thing we have seen recently that might be an analogy.

“This is, of course, smaller, but represents the same type of potential behavior with executive management throwing money at a problem they really do not understand but have a perceived business downside. This time, though, it’s for litigious and PR reasons.”

Next Page: How other retailers fare with accessibility.

Agreeing with Golesworthy is veteran retail technology analyst Paula Rosenblum, who today is a vice president with the Retail Systems Alert Group.

“This lawsuit, assuming it is successful, is a double-edged sword. The ‘beauty’ of government mandates and singular events like Y2K is they drive enterprises out of their short-term ROI mentalities,” Rosenblum said.

“Complying with new regulations will either be a huge distraction for retailers as they rush to comply with a government mandate, or will serve as an opportunity to not just comply with the mandate, but take the opportunity to clean up their online and cross-channel acts. This is long overdue.”

In Golesworthy’s latest study of the Web sites of the Fortune 100, his team found that only 12 sites were “fine,” 52 had “real problems” and 36 were in the in-between “amber” stage, he said.

Target was among the 52 with “real problems,” and Wal-Mart was in the amber in-between zone.

For the record, the 12 whose sites were found to indeed be ADA-friendly were three tech players (IBM, Microsoft and HP), three financial firms (Wells Fargo, Bank of America and Washington Mutual), three manufacturers (Delphi, Dow Chemicals and John Deere), one insurance company (Nationwide Mutual), a pharmaceutical (Johnson & Johnson), and one lone retailer: Walgreens.

Golesworthy’s advice to Target is to give up and salvage as much of this mess as possible.

“You basically fall on your sword and say, ‘We’re good people. Really,’” he said.

Like all other corporate issues, this one resists being made neat and clean.

For example, consumers are not neatly split into sighted and non-sighted.

The visually impaired—which includes colorblindness—is potentially a much bigger audience of lost consumers.

“Some companies like to use their corporate colors, which not necessarily easy to read,” Golesworthy said.

But a complicated design is the biggest problem.

Even with mouse-over alt-text, a design that relies on tables and formats will simply jump all over the place when the graphics are turned off, making it very difficult to navigate, he said.

Another factor is the global market. The European Union has mandated strict accessibility rules for any retailer that wants to sell to Europeans.

Those rules are slated to take effect in 2010. For multinational retailers, “you’re going to have to do it eventually” so why fight it now, he asked.

Why, indeed?

Evan Schuman is retail editor for Ziff Davis Internet’s Enterprise Edit group. He has tracked high-tech issues since 1987, has been opinionated long before that and doesn’t plan to stop anytime soon. He can be reached at

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