Scottish technology company Neatebox is offering supermarkets across the UK access to innovative new technology which, the company claims, can remove the challenges millions of individuals are currently facing when they visit a shop during lockdown. 

Social distancing rules, queues, changing opening times and protected hours for key workers are just some of the vital new rules being employed by supermarkets countrywide to help protect both staff and customers from COVID-19.  

However, for those with a visible or hidden disability, the new regulations can increase anxiety, cause confusion and, in some cases, pose a significant barrier to simply shopping for essentials.  

Gavin Neate, founder of tech company Neatebox, explains the challenges: “Supermarkets have had to adapt rapidly to an evolving situation, creating innovative ways to minimise the risk of viral spread. However, for millions, the new rules are impossible to follow without more support.  

“For individuals with autism, the rules can add an extra layer of anxiety. For someone who is blind, finding the end of the queue to enter the store is hugely difficult. Knowing where to stand on the 2 metre-spaced markers and when to move forward is impossible without help, while social distancing is reliant on other people being aware. Supermarkets have had to adapt quickly so there aren’t tactile markers or trained door staff able to effectively assist customers who require that level of additional support. 

“Our technology, called ‘Welcome’, is designed to address inadequate customer support by alerting a venue to an individual’s visit in advance, outlining their specific requirements and, most importantly, providing staff with an overview of the customer’s condition and clear guidance on how to interact with that customer.  

“75% of disabled people have left a shop or deserted a business because of poor disability awareness or understanding. At present, the challenges are even greater for the 13 million disabled people living in the UK. We recognise the importance of immediate action and can install and deliver a trial of the system for free during the lockdown to help manage the disruptive effects of COVID-19.” 

‘Welcome’ which is a free app for end users, is available on a free trial basis to all supermarket brands in the UK. It allows customers to tell the venue in advance about their upcoming visit and indicate any specific customer service assistance they may require. The shop is then notified of the visit and receives an overview of the customer’s condition. Crucially, this includes guidance from the appropriate charity to aid all interactions with the customer, including easy to follow top tips. The aim is to facilitate better communication between customers and staff to create long-lasting and mutually respectful relationships. 

‘Welcome’ is already used in a variety of venues across the UK, ranging from banks and offices to galleries and hotels. 

Siobhan Meade is blind and she explains why the ‘Welcome’ technology is vital, especially during the current pandemic. She said: “My experience as a blind shopper is entirely dependent on either the knowledge or common sense of the staff member I encounter. Some venues are amazing and they just get it while others ask how they can help but there’s a real problem with some shops not knowing and not caring to know how to help.  

“I never feel as blind as I do when I stand somewhere, I don’t know and can’t find staff help. Supermarkets create the biggest barrier to my independence. Sometimes we’ll be waiting for 30 minutes and often they seek to obtain the services of the youngest, newest and least able to communicate colleague and that was before the additional complexities of COVID-19. It’s so important that venues know that communications are central. 

“At present, it isn’t necessarily possible to use online delivery. The creators of ‘Welcome’ know that their challenge is to install the app in new shops so that more people with all types of disability know it’s available and get genuine use out of it. If we can get this out there more widely, I’d head on to the high street and into shops more often. 

“Knowing that I could head out to shops and, after lockdown, restaurants without being made to feel incapable would be amazing and give me a sense of control about how I want to be assisted.”