ShoesRemember when songs used to have some deeper poetic or spiritual meaning? In the late 1960s, Joe South wrote the song “Walk a Mile in My Shoes.” It was first sung by Joe South and the Believers in 1970 and shortly thereafter covered by Elvis Presley. (Go ahead, pull it up on YouTube and listen while you read this. You know you want to.) The line in the song that resonates with me goes like this: “Yeah, before you abuse, criticize and accuse, walk a mile in my shoes.”

I could see this phraseology being applied to many challenges we face, from racism to bigotry. Dare I say, wouldn’t it be nice if our politicians took these words to heart? But I digress.

This reference actually goes even further back and is often credited to Native American tribes and their linguistic traditions. The first written reference might be from an 1895 poem by Mary T. Lathrap called “Judge Softly.” In it, she says, “Walk a mile in his moccasins” and challenges the reader to see things from the other’s perspective.

New Pair of Shoes

For the past few weeks, I have been walking in someone else’s shoes. I had hip-replacement surgery almost three weeks ago and since then, I’ve looked more like Herbert from “Family Guy” than a retail designer. Yes, I have the walker, decked out with yellow tennis balls, and have been wearing shoes with no socks or laces. The hip may be bionic, but putting on socks and tying shoes is not going to happen for a few more weeks. Everything I do now has a different feel to it. I am truly walking in someone else’s shoes.

I would never say that I totally understand the challenges of the disabled, but I can tell you that I have a much different perspective today. When going to the drug store recently to pick up my prescription, I went through the drive-thru. Usually, I would walk in and get my prescription and anything else that came to mind. Today, I just didn’t want the hassle of getting out of the car, getting the walker and shuffling into the store amid potential stares.

I have had many experiences that have made me take note of the unique challenges people with disabilities go through. For me, it is only a couple of months. For them, it is a way of life.

Jason McDonald, one of our incredibly talented designers, wrote a column last year for CSP about the Americans with Disabilities Act from a millennial perspective.

Our most mobile generation talking about our least mobile customers? It was enlightening, to say the least. Take that, plus my newfound perspective, and I’m left wondering where this can take us. How can we take a very specific demographic and capture a greater market share? Elements such as drive-thru, automatic or wheelchair-accessible doors, curbless access, wider sidewalks, family bathrooms, and phone-in orders are only the beginning.

Just Ask

Understanding the physical and psychological challenges that customers with disabilities face every day will enable you to serve your customers better. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve needed an extra hand. When you have two hands on the walker or wheelchair, it makes it hard to hold onto your purchases—and it is even harder to keep from spilling your wine at home. (Just saying.) How about reusable shopping bags that customers can use at any time? I resorted to zip-tying a basket onto the front of my walker. I will tell you that I got quite a few looks, and not in a good way.

Here’s an idea for your marketing team: Identify a variety of disabled individuals, young and old, with a variety of disabilities, and listen to them. You don’t have to go to the extent of having a total hip replacement to get your “a-ha” moment. You can walk a mile in their shoes by reaching out into the community and listening to the wants and needs of your customers and developing your own unique solution for their challenges.

Ask for 10 actionable items that will make a difference in the shopping experience of this demographic. Remember, boomers are getting older and, apparently, more fragile, so the demographic will only grow.

What is it that you want your brand to stand for? Do you want to be known as the store that has the best selection of cold beverages, or the store that listens to and cares about its customers? Guess what? You can do both. It all starts when you walk a mile in their shoes.