• The Color Blind Shopper

The Color Blind Shopper


Carol Kaufman-Scarborough, Rutgers University, Camden

Many consumers throughout the United States have impaired or limited information processing capabilities as part of congenital or illness-related disabilities, yet their specific problems and needs are often not formally considered by firms, by researchers, or by students preparing to enter the business world. I learned this quite by accident in my own Consumer Analysis class when I gave a routine assignment to my students.

The assignment was a simple one, which build upon traditional theories of perception and learning, considered in terms of consumers in the marketplace. These theories help to explain how people search for and acquire information about products and services. More specifically, the theories help to predict how colors and designs attract consumers to products, through things such as bright labels, interesting store displays, and intriguing package designs. The students in this instance were asked to compare and contrast a specific brand of product as it was displayed in two different kinds of stores, small private stores versus large specialty chains.

The students in the class were about half through the semester, when one student approached one evening, and somewhat uncomfortably informed me that he was unable to complete the assignment. He was quite visibly distressed, as he was an energetic, intelligent young man who was scheduled to graduate in the near future. Upon further discussion, I learned that he was unable to complete the assignment as given because he was color-blind. He told me that the packages in the stores were brightly colored, but that he was often unable to see the contrasts which "theoretically" should be attracting him. He admittedly was at a significant disadvantage and was willing to undertake an alternative assignment.

What we developed was a specific project for this young man, which involved his reviewing theories of color perception, and integrating them with a factual assessment of color-blindness. As part of that report, he was asked to suggest areas which marketers have overlooked color-blind consumers in developing products, in designing packages and labels, in producing advertisements, and in creating retail displays. He also was requested to share his observations with the class.

That report was the beginning of the present study, in which I am seeking the input of color-blind consumers, in order to present summaries of their problems within my field of marketing. Specifically, I have developed a survey which examines the issue of color-blindness and its impacts upon shopping, packaging, and advertising. The responses which I receive will be tabulated, and the survey responses of actual color-blind shoppers will be content-analyzed for common problems, developing recommendations for creating a more user-friendly shopping environment.

To date, several color-blind persons have completed my ten-minute Color Blind Consumer Survey, and their responses will be anonymously combined with others to determine whether there is a common set of problems and issues which color-blind persons nationwide are facing. It is likely that color-blind consumers are unable to process some or all aspects of visual color information, potentially increasing their vulnerability in the marketplace. For them, color cues simply may not be processed and interpreted as intended.

Studies of consumer reaction to advertising, packaging, and other informational cues traditionally assume that the vision capabilities of consumers are within a relatively-standard range of color capabilities. As marketers, we translate that understanding of color in designing packages, developing advertisements, and in general, communicating meaning to consumers. In reality, the ability to perceive color is not uniform among all persons. Some persons who are color-blind are unable to see color at all; more common, however, are persons whose color vision is confusing, distorted, and difficult to match to the color-information provided in the marketplace.

The knowledge of color perception and processing builds its foundation on experimental evidence in psychology and vision studies, in which the colors, types, hues, and combinations are examined in assessing their impact on the meaning which is thought to be derived. However, ophthalmic evidence and consumer complaints tell us that a substantial number of consumers do not see colors in the ways in which our theories predict. It may be surprising to learn that in the United States alone, approximately 19 million persons possess some form of color-blindness. While many of these persons are not technically blind, there may be some colors which are inaccessible to them, appearing instead as a confusing blend of greys.

Depth interviews and surveys were completed by an initial sample of color-blind persons in my own community. The participants were asked to discuss their perceived problems with advertising, in-store shopping, and packaging. They described their satisfaction with each of the three areas, and also provided insight into problems which they encounter. heir responses seem to indicate that a common set of problems exist, which can significantly affect the color-blind person's abilities to shop capably and effectively. My hope is to recruit a larger, nationwide sample of color-blind consumers to participate in this study, so that the responses of a large group can be used to develop a summary of color-vision issues for marketing professionals to understand.

It is my contention that color-blind shoppers experience predictable problems in the marketplace, which can be alleviated by education, discussion, and informed training. Reds and greens appear to pose the most consistent set of problems; dim lighting makes the problems even worse. Since color-blind persons process color information in a different way from color-sighted consumers, color-distortions can affect their abilities to choose products, to notice information in advertising and on packaging, and to operate effectively in store settings. Policymakers might consider interventions such as increased verbal color information on color-related products and increased contrast to highlight important information which affects consumer choice.

The informants had several suggestions which could potentially produce packaging which is more user-friendly for those who are color-blind, have age- or illness-related degenerative vision, or who have limited sight. Rather than printing warnings in commonly-used reds and greens, warnings which use universally-perceived cues are recommended. Warnings could adopt commonly-understood symbols or indicators, such as a circle with a slash, or print the entire message in capital letters. Such considerations are important in providing equal access to employee safety and protection.

Color-blind consumers have voiced their concerns with public settings which limit their accessibility to safe use and law-abiding behaviors. For instance, consumer activists launched a campaign heralding "color awareness" after a color-coded parking system was instituted in Palo Alto, California. Since color was the only cue used to inform shoppers of parking instructions, color-blind consumers were clearly placed at a disadvantage. Other activities, such as driving, extend to concerns with safety. Since traffic lights are generally dependent upon color and position recognition, such signals sometimes vary between horizontal and vertical rows of lights, which can cause confusion. The color cue could be supplemented by a uniform system of stripes or shapes embedded in the lens of the signal.

While some solutions appear simple to discuss and to implement, it is difficult to educate our future business leaders to be aware of the problems faced by color-blind consumers, since so little has been written in this regard. My study is an attempt to create awareness through knowledge, by enabling the voices of the color-blind consumers to reach those in my field of marketing.

Color Blind Consumer Survey

If you, or someone whom you know, is interested in participating in the Color Blind Consumer Survey, please contact me at the address or phone numbers listed below. Your responses will be considered anonymously; code numbers will be assigned to each survey for analysis. Either summaries of all the responses will be presented in my future writings, or, at most, fictitious names will be used when presenting quotations of actual individuals.

Carol Kaufman-Scarborough, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Marketing
Rutgers University School of Business
227 Penn St. Camden, NJ 08102
Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Office: 609-225-6592
Fax: 609-225-6231

Web site: http://crab.rutgers.edu/~ckaufman/

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