Over the past year we’ve seen retailers think further and faster. Covid has been a catalyst for creative problem solving, exposing foundational problems and raw emotions around economic and social divides, healthcare, climate and racism. Retailers have played their part, modifying their approach to be more inclusive, which has benefited the many, not just the few. How can they retain that mindset and maximise growth?

Customers and employees, who don’t fit the traditional mould, can help you identify important problems, which aren’t obvious and wouldn’t surface in a mainstream audit. Often there’s an insight that applies to everyone, or an inclusive quality that’s appreciated by anyone who’s socially progressive. A study published in the Journal of Management found that workforce diversity improves returns for retail stores regardless of how diverse their customer base is.

Tiffany & Co. saw the opportunity to stand out as the most inclusive luxury brand, in a sector where racial bias is prevalent. The company has systematically integrated inclusive practices, in partnership with The NeuroLeadership Institute, such as applying customer survey data to measure its progress and improving its retail training programmes.

All customers benefit from the dismantling of structural prejudice in stores. Take, for example, a situation where a (non-white) customer in a clothes store is presumed by another customer to be a retail assistant and regaled with an armful of clothes to put in a fitting room. Awkward! On the one hand, a microaggression, on the other face, egg. Practical solutions, such as branded staff name badges or uniforms, along with staff training, alleviate discomfort and create a more welcoming environment for all.

A simple matter of new signage has earned Woolworths PR coverage and positive sentiment. Following a well-received pilot in New Zealand, Woolworths renamed its Feminine Hygiene aisle Period Care. It chips away at taboos, and supports a supplier, building on Bodyform’s #wombstories campaign telling the hidden truths about women’s bodies.

A fundamentally inclusive approach has led to breakthrough designs for IKEA, reinforcing their brand vision ‘to create a better everyday life for as many people as possible’. The brainchild of a designer with cerebral palsy, ThisAbles is a platform where IKEA, in partnership with non-profit partners Milbat and Access Israel, collects and resolves problems experienced by disabled customers. This leads to fresh designs of beautifully simple accessibility products with broader relevance, such as a snap cup device, which keeps a glass of water close at hand when in bed.

IKEA’s persistence in solving problems for many people counter-intuitively, in service of its inclusive vision, has made it very resilient. Embodying qualities of visibility, value, vitality and virtue, IKEA continues to be a standout in Principals’ Brand Alpha study, which measures the authentic leadership qualities of brands, this year focussing on the most resilient brands in Australia.

Any brand can navigate changing times more successfully by adopting a more nuanced view of customers. Some retailers are eying an emerging cohort of NEO (New Economic Order) customers. 4.7 million strong, these people are socially progressive, creative high spenders who think and behave very differently from the masses. They earn more and they spend more, accounting for at least 70% of elective discretionary spend, according to social scientist Ross Honeywill. To benefit from a two-speed recovery, he suggests retailers can’t afford to ignore NEOs.

JB Hi-Fi has built sustained growth on the back of the NEO cohort. However, while targeting this non-mainstream group in a self-serving way, the company has failed to be genuinely inclusive. A new report from the Retail and Fast Food Workers Union has revealed that JB Hi-Fi has an “endemic culture of gender discrimination and sexual harassment.” This could undermine the gains they’ve made elsewhere.

Serving those outside the mainstream in a genuinely inclusive way not only wins you the support of valuable cohorts, but helps you create a better experience for the majority. In fact, given that ‘mainstream’ is a proxy for ‘for everyone,’ mainstream retailers have the most to gain, not the least, from being more inclusive. In an age when more people care about more than just themselves, majority no longer rules.

This article was first published on Inside Retail.