Sobeys goes easy on the senses to help those with autism

Nova Scotia grocery store dims the lights and silences music and more as part of a twice-monthly sensory-friendly shopping experience

This Sunday between 6 p.m. and 7 p.m., Sobeys stores across Nova Scotia will be a little darker and a little quieter than usual.

It’s part of a twice-monthly initiative to provide sensory-friendly shopping to its customers. Reduced lighting, noise and other stimuli are meant to make the experience more tolerable for people with autism. The initiative was inspired by a pilot of similar sensory accommodations in P.E.I. last fall.

The Nova Scotia program kicked off Feb. 24, and feedback from customers and employees has been very positive, said Lori Rhyno, director of Sobeys store operations in Northern Nova Scotia.

“I had one of my peers in Cape Breton tell me a customer had been in the store and it was the first time they had ever been able to take their daughter shopping. It was the first time  had been in the store and able to pick out her own treat,” she said.

Another colleague in Halifax spoke with a senior couple who did not have sensory issues but appreciated the quieter experience, and another customer emailed to say she really appreciated how “relaxing and calming” it was and that she looked forward to shopping there again during the sensory-friendly period.

“Overall it was a great kick-off and we got great feedback from both customers and employees,” said Rhyno, who has a daughter with sensory and development challenges. “Taking her grocery shopping is probably one of the tasks I dread most,” she said.

The complete list of accommodations includes:

•Reduce lighting by 50%;

•Silence all sound from PA systems, music, telephones, scanners and registers;

•Encourage staff to speak softly;

•Refrain from gathering shopping carts;

•Hang visual aids around popular grocery items such as apples, bread, milk and eggs; and

•Position a manager at the front of the store to support customers.

The employees explain to other customers why the store is so dimly lit and quieter than normal. “With 50% lighting it may look like the store is closed or something is going on,” said Rhyno.

“Not only will this make grocery shopping more accessible for individuals on the Autism Spectrum, it will benefit all people with sensory challenges,” said Cynthia Carroll, executive director at Autism Nova Scotia. “We know for many, this initiative will have a dramatic impact on their quality of life and we are grateful that Sobeys is implementing this across Nova Scotia.”

While the initiative is still unusual it is not entirely unique, with other retailers making similar efforts to accommodate individuals with autism or the growing number of families with autistic children.

According to the most recent statistics from the U.S. Center for Disease Control, one in 59 children are diagnosed with autism—one in 37 boys and one in 151 girls. Diagnosed autism rates have increased dramatically in recent years. In 2000, just one in 150 children were identified as on the Autism Spectrum Disorder.

In November 2017, Toys 'R' Us trialled sensory-friendly shopping hours, and in recent years, more retail destinations have been offering autism-friendly or sensory-friendly visits with Santa around the holidays. Last year, British supermarket chain Morrisons introduced a “quieter hour” to help people with autism.

“Listening to customers, we found that one in five had a friend or family member with autism and many liked the idea of being able to shop in more comfort,” said the company at the time.

And inspired by the Sobeys initiative, a No Frills in Arnprior, Ont. has also introduced a sensory-friendly shopping experience Mondays from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m.

Franchise owner Mark Harrison told the CBC that as a father of two children on the autism spectrum he knows how bright light and noise can be challenging. “It can be very disorienting for them. It can make the experience of basic shopping just horrible. So if we can offer a bit of a calmer experience with less lights and less noise, then it's a win for everybody," he said.