Like many blind or visually impaired people, Steve Decker does a lot of online shopping with the help of tools that read text out loud.
But like many shoppers, regardless of ability, he still likes to come to stores in person to gauge the freshness of produce or to feel the texture of a sweater. To do so, he often has to rely on store employees to walk him around the store and direct him to the correct shelf or rack.
Now he's helped add another option for consumers like him when they shop at some Target stores this holiday. The Minneapolis-based retailer, where Decker works on an 18-person accessibility team, has expanded a pilot program to 600 stores to offer for free a service called Aira for those who are blind or have limited vision.
Users sign on to the Aira app or use smart glasses to connect to customer service agents working remotely who are able to see through the phone's camera. The agents then can help guide customers through the store and describe products to them in detail.
"We're the first store to provide Aira for free that has such a wide assortment of products," Decker said of Target. "You can literally buy everything here."
More than 40 airports, including Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, as well as some major public transit systems and college campuses, also partnered with Aira, a California-based tech company, in the past few years. Two other retail chains — Walgreens and Wegmans, a grocery chain headquartered in New York — also offer it for free.
Earlier this week, Decker gave the Star Tribune a demo of how Aira works at Target's store next to its headquarters on Nicollet Mall. He called up an Aira agent through the app, who, using GPS, was able to determine his location.
"Hello, Steve," the agent said. "I see that you're at the Target in Minneapolis Nicollet Mall."
He confirmed that he was and asked her to pull up a map of the store from Target's website to help him find holiday ornaments, which they discovered are on the first floor of the two-level store.
"There are elevators to your left," she said.
He preferred to take the escalator, so she guided him there, trying to help him avoid bumping into other people and displays in the middle of aisles along the way. He held the phone in front of him so she could see what was ahead of him.
Downstairs, in the holiday decor section, she described items as he passed them, pointing out candy and wreaths.
When they got to the ornaments aisle, she listed off the different varieties in front of him.
"I can't quite make out if those are horses or unicorns — oh a unicorn," she said. "It is white with a silver horn."
He held it in his hands, feeling the contours of the product and asked her if she could see the price. She asked him to move the camera a bit to get it into view.
"Oh, yes, it's $3," she said.
From there, it was off to the checkout line where a cashier helped him through the rest of the transaction.
"There are some things, especially because I can't see pictures, I want to put my hands on and know what they feel like," he said afterward. "The ornament I purchased, I wanted to see how big it was. Was it soft and so forth? Sometimes there's no substitute for actually touching things."
A Target spokeswoman declined to say how much the company is paying to offer the service for free in the 600 stores. Aira lets users make five-minute calls for free from anywhere and offers plans for an additional 30 to 300 minutes ranging in price from $29 to $199 a month.
Decker said Target will evaluate the program after the holidays to decide if it will be rolled out to more stores.
"It's still pretty early on," he added. "We're hoping to learn a lot from the expansion. We've definitely gotten some really positive feedback."
Since the pilot program was launched at 200 Target stores a year ago, many Aira users have been asking when it will be coming to their local stores because they like being able to do all of their shopping in one place, said Paul Schroeder, a vice president at Aira.
"Target is highly sought after in the blind community," he said. "It's not easy for blind people to go to multiple locations to get the things they need."
He added that Aira helps its thousands of users get useful information that's otherwise hard for them to access in stores such as reading the ingredients on boxes, understanding color options and having the pictures on boxes described to them. And it helps liberate them from having to wait for stores to find workers to accompany them around the store — and gives blind people more freedom to shop more leisurely, he said.
"We know we're taking somebody's time to walk around the store with us," said Schroeder, who is also blind. "We're sensitive to that. We don't want to spend a lot of time browsing or examining items with that person because we're tying them up from their other duties."
Aira is one of the latest ways that Target has worked to make its products and experiences more accessible to people with disabilities. The retailer has been recognized for its efforts, which include offering adaptive Halloween costumes for children in wheelchairs and sensory-friendly clothing for children.
Its accessibility team, which is spread out between its Minneapolis and Bangalore offices, works closely with engineers, web developers and designers to make sure Target's website, mobile app and workers' devices are accessible for customers and employees with various disabilities. For example, it makes sure Target includes captions with its online videos for people who are deaf. The transcripts also often describe what is going on for blind people using screen readers. Labels also are included with pictures on its website for the same reason.
Decker estimates he uses Aira several times a week to help him navigate through everyday life and some special occasions. Last year, for example, he tapped it to have his daughter's school play described to him while he wore headphones so as not to disturb those around him.
After Target's Nicollet Mall store was remodeled a couple of years ago, he wasn't sure how to get to the pharmacy in the new configuration. So he used Aira to help him find the best path.
"I don't need to use it every time I go to the pharmacy now, but it was helpful that first time," he said.