Monday 28 February 2022

Shopping With A Disability At Westfield

Hello Everyone,

A few weeks ago I spent a day shopping with some friends at the Westfield in Stratford. All three of us had sight loss. It was my first time being in a situation where I had the most useful vision out of us. To shop till we dropped, we used the assistance service that's available at the shopping centre. This post is about my experience using this service for the first time. 

What is the Assistance Service?

If you've ever been to the Westfield in Stratford you'll know it's very busy and difficult to navigate, whether you have a visual impairment or not. Thankfully for VIPs (Visually Impaired People), they have guest service staff who will assist visually impaired customers once they arrive to the desk near the Starbucks and M & S on the lower ground floor. The way it works is, staff take you to your chosen shop and leave you with a staff member there to help you shop. Once you're done, you call them again and someone will come to take you where you'd like to go next. The Visual Impairment section of the website states you need to pre-book online, or call the number provided to use this service on the day. The page mentions from Monday to Saturday you can use it from 10 AM to 7PM and 11 AM to 5 PM on Sundays.

Also during our shopping trip, some staff members mentioned they do other tasks like give people directions to shops they'd like to go to, or provide a wheelchair. Apparently, anyone can call and use the service. If you'd like to know more about other services available at the shopping centre, visit the services page

My Experience:

I'll admit I don't go to the Stratford Westfield a lot. The last time I went, I didn't need to walk up stairs and on a bridge to get inside. So I needed to ask people for directions because I couldn't find any staff members at the platform to ask for help. Plus, I wasn't sure which button to press on the white "help" box. For future reference, I now know it's the information one. Once I got there, I had no idea where the desk was and called the number. I explained where I was, what I looked like and where I needed to go. Someone came and guided me to the Starbucks where my friends were and then left. We decided which shops to start with and I called the assistant service to take us there.

The Sighted Guiding Experience: 

Sighted Guide is a technique people with sight loss use to navigate unfamiliar environments. There are two methods to this, but both ways involve a sighted person being the lead and guiding the blind or Visually impaired person. One way is you as the person guiding is one step in front of the person you're guiding and they hold onto your elbow on their preferred side. As you walk, they'll be able to feel which way your moving. The other method is when the person who needs guiding holds onto your shoulder and feels which way your body is moving, whilst you walk one step ahead of them. Always ask people which side they prefer and let them know about any upcoming steps, gaps, unexpected stops or obstacles they'll need to avoid as they walk. 

By the way it's possible for one person to guide to people, either both VIPs holds onto your right, or left elbow, or they hold each others elbow and form a line with you guiding them as the lead. I've heard the second option is called the VIP tango. The reason why I've brought this up is because, on our shopping trip there was one lady who was called to guide us at Starbucks and said she's the only one here and called her colleague over to guide both my friends, whilst I followed behind them. My friend who had used the service before, explained previously some staff have guided two people at once, so it probably depends on the person. When I went, most staff members didn't suggest doing this option. After that, we developed a system where one friend was guided by the services staff and I followed from behind, whilst guiding my other friend. Every time I called to get assistance I'd say "hi we're the three VIPs who need guiding, we're outside x shop, near y and need someone to take us to z shop". The services staff were nice people, they explained where we were going, chatted and waited with us until customer service came and even gave one of my friends the key they used to open the disabled toilet after taking us there. Turns out they can give it to you for free, or you can buy yourself one on Amazon!

Customer Service Staff in Shops:

For the most part the customer service staff in the shops we went to were nice. We did have a few awkward moments like in JD Sport where the staff member came to help us and started walking towards the trainers section, expecting us to follow behind her. I had to quickly call after her and tell her to guide one of my friends, whilst I guided my other friend and followed them. It's probably just instinct for customer service staff to have people follow them when they ask for help. Maybe they aren't used to helping blind people? 

When we went to Boots, Rituals, John Lewis and Clarks the staff members were very helpful. For example in Rituals the lady helped us find the hand wash my friend needed and described the scents of other products for my other friend too. She even gave us free fortune cookies! Similarly in Boots the staff member, guided us to get what we needed and described the options that were available to us. Also in the perfume section at John Lewis the two staff members brought the products my friends were interested in to them, sprayed them on pieces of paper and their skin to give them idea of what the scents were like. All we had to do was wait at one of the counters and they went around different areas of the store to get the products for us. Just to let you know, sometimes customer service try to sell you a specific product, which was certainly the case for my friends in the perfume section. So watch out for that! Both staff members provided excellent service. One person even guided us to the shoe section and then left the store with us to take us to Clarks after we were done! 

Speaking of Clarks, it was the only store where I actually bought something. A staff member there sat us down, I explained what I was looking for (waterproof trainers for when it rains, sandals for summer and shoes for weddings). She described the different options available in store, on her iPad and brought different sizes over to me. Not to mention help me with the shoe laces and sandal straps. Shoe shopping for me is quite a challenge anyway, so I wasn't expecting to find much. In the end I left with a new pair of waterproof black and grey trainers and sandals which were in a brown colour, with gold on top and straps around the ankles. Both of which seemed to work for what I needed. Furthermore, this lady went out of her way to get me a discount and guide us to the food court! We ended the day with a late lunch at Popeye's, where a staff member let us skip the que and took us to a table, where he brought the food to us as well. We did need to ask them to do the second part, but I still think this counts as a blind person perk. If anyone who helped us on the day is reading this, thank you for all your help!

The Popeye's in Stratford is the first one launched in the UK and it was halal! I enjoyed my meal. Below is a photo of what I had.

IMAGE DESCRIPTION: Photo of the Popeye's spicy chicken sandwich meal on a white table. It's a spicy chicken burger placed in foil and an orange box on the right, chips are in an orange open container that says "fries ya'll" in yellow text, which is placed in the top middle, with a white coca cola drink next to it on the left and on the front left is a white and orange packet that says "sandwich time" in bold -orange text. Behind it is a large dark orange paper bag that says Popeyes. 

Obviously you should always save room for dessert, which is what we had at Caffe Concerto. I've not been to Caffe Concerto before, It turns out there are two versions, one inside in the middle of the shopping centre and one in the outdoor area which is part of the shopping centre that the staff will take you to. Since, I've not been there before I asked them to take us to the indoor one. The waiter was really helpful, he read out what was on the menu to us, placed the food on the table for us safely and did the payment at the table. Here's a look at what I had:

IMAGE DESCRIPTION: photo of the pistachio and honey cake and chai tea I had, places on a grey table. The cake is on a oval plate on the left and is made up of layers of green and brown, with a small dollop of whipped cream on top and red berries. On the left is a white tea cup and saucer with red chai tea in it. Behind it is a white teapot with more tea.

It turns out a lot of people who need assistance only stay for one or two hours, the guest services staff were surprised that we were still there 5 hours later. We ended up leaving near the service closing time, where one staff member guided us to the taxi pick up place and then back to the station so my friend and I could get home. He even pressed the button on the white box to ensure TFL assistance took us to the correct platform. Overall, I'm happy with my first experience using this service. As a visually impaired person I find shopping in person a bit overwhelming and prefer doing it online. However, services like this makes it a lot easier and I'll make sure to use it more often. 

Unfortunately I wasn't able to find information about whether other shopping centres had a service like this. However I'm happy to report that the Westfield in Shepherds Bush states on the visually impaired section on the website that they have Guest services team who are happy to assist you at their desk near Starbucks on the ground floor. Similarly to the Stratford website, it states you need to pre-book online or call the number provided. 

That's all I've got for this post. Have you used a service like this before? What was your experience like? Are there any other places you know that have it? Let me know in the comments below. 


1 comment:

  1. I am a Habilitation Specialist and I have taught Orientation and Mobility to children and young people at Westfield Stratford and I was very impressed with their service. My students now travel there independently.