By Geoff Adams-Spink
Age & disability correspondent, BBC News website
A survey of the UK's 30 most important retail websites shows that none of them meet minimum accessibility standards for disabled shoppers.
The internet can be as challenging as the physical environment
The research was carried out last month by Nomensa, a specialist access consultancy firm.
Websites were evaluated using manual and automated testing, looking at retailers' homepages and their terms and conditions page.
A British Retail Consortium spokesman said the rules need clarification.
Nomensa used the internationally recognised Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) as the basis for its testing.
Although none of the sites met the minimum accessibility standards, John Lewis, Marks & Spencer and Tesco were considered to have paid particular attention to accessibility.
Nomensa's managing director, Simon Norris, said the UK's 10 million disabled people ought to be able to buy a Christmas present online for a friend or family member this year.
"These research findings show that anyone with serious physical impairments, visually impaired people or those who need glasses to read would encounter difficulties and in many cases would give up trying," he said.
Mr Norris is urging companies to extend their corporate social responsibility programmes to include web accessibility.
"I'm calling on the boardrooms of these retailers to really start to take their online responsibility just as seriously," he said.
Nomensa's research has found that:
- Three out of 30 terms and conditions pages achieved basic accessibility standards
- 29 of the websites had text that would be difficult to read for people wearing glasses
- Only Apple computer and John Lewis had added text descriptions to all images which is helpful to blind and partially sighted people
- 25 of the 30 sites continued to use pop-up windows
- 29 websites do not use shortcut links to enable people to navigate the page without using a mouse
Mr Norris recommends that companies devise, implement and then monitor their accessibility standards in order not to lose potential income.
According to IMRG, a lobby group of online retailers, 40% of the UK population shopped online in the run up to last Christmas and spent an average of £94 each.
Based on these figures, Nomensa estimates that disabled people could potentially spend £376m, some of which is being lost because of poor accessibility.
The British Retail Consortium said that its members were committed to making their services as accessible as possible.
"Retailers have made huge progress in improving physical access to and within stores," said spokesman Richard Dodd.
"They also continue to work on making websites easier to use but some online retailers have found that more difficult."
The BRC said a lack of information about the extent of legal obligations had hindered progress towards improving accessibility.
IMRG chief executive James Roper said e-retailers were taking their "accessibility responsibilities very seriously" but suggested that the current requirements were "both premature and overambitious".
The online retail industry was still young, he said, while most e-commerce firms were still unprofitable and technology was evolving rapidly and continuously.
"Many [firms] are striving hard to provide excellent service to all consumers," Mr Roper said.