Once a week, staff at the candy store Freak Lunchbox in Charlottetown dim the lights, turn off the music and stop stocking shelves for one hour.
The store’s sensory-friendly shopping hour – every Wednesday from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. – is intended for customers who have sensory sensitivities, including people with autism spectrum disorder. Store manager Olivia Roberts says feedback from all customers has been positive.
“It’s just really peaceful for the hour,” says Ms. Roberts, who introduced the concept in September after hearing about sensory-friendly shopping in the Netflix series Atypical.
Small retailers across the country are temporarily dimming bright lights and turning down or off loud music, in a move to offer more customers a positive shopping experience. The measure comes as big retail chains and attractions, including museums, science centres and movie theatres, also make adjustments to create inclusive atmospheres.
“The adoption of this has been quite rapid,” says Craig Patterson, a retail analyst and a director at the University of Alberta School of Retailing. “It’s about catering to what the consumer wants. Some consumers will have no problem with the big, bright, exciting store, but some people will. This is another way of innovating to create something that will be good for consumers.”
At Freak Lunchbox, Ms. Roberts says she informed customers about the new sensory-friendly shopping hour through a Facebook post and shared with staff a fact sheet on how to better communicate with people who have autism.
Dominique Payment, family support and resource co-ordinator at Autism Canada, says the organization is seeing an increase in sensory-friendly offerings.
For people on the spectrum who have sensory-processing disorder, Ms. Payment says common sounds, bright lights and crowded areas can be painful or overwhelming. When someone is overstimulated in such an environment, they can become unco-ordinated and bump into things.
Families with children who have special needs and adults with special needs benefit from efforts by businesses to be sensory-friendly, Ms. Payment says.
“It’s easier for families to be able to do some typical activities with their children. For adults on the spectrum too, they’re able to enjoy their visit or their trip or even just [buying] groceries,” she says.
Christel Seeberger is the founder and CEO of Sensory Friendly Solutions in New Brunswick. The Saint John-based company offers a searchable online listing of businesses offering sensory-friendly activities and experiences, and also consults with businesses seeking to be more sensory-friendly.
“In a world that’s getting busier, noisier and brighter for everyone, people are really looking for a bit of a break,” Ms. Seeberger says.
In her former work as an occupational therapist, Ms. Seeberger says she saw a rising number of people experiencing sensory overload in daily life because of varied causes, including autism, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, concussion and dementia.
Ms. Seeberger says that seeing people struggle, combined with her personal experience with adult-onset hearing loss and wearing hearing aids, prompted her to start a business focused on the sensory-friendly community.
“In my experiences personally, there’s a tendency to go out less, to do less. You really do adjust your lifestyle in terms of where you go, what you do, how long you spend there,” she says.
While there are no universal standards for what makes something sensory-friendly, Ms. Seeberger says reducing noise and bright lights are the most common adjustments. Other considerations can include limiting the number of shoppers, giving staff extra training and reducing or eliminating scents.
As not all stores offer the same sensory-friendly experiences, Ms. Seeberger advises business owners to clearly communicate what changes they’re making.
“One of the most important things you can do if you’re offering something that’s sensory-friendly is just to let people know exactly what to expect,” she says.
Erica Drisdelle, manager at the health food store Sequoia in Fredericton, introduced a sensory-friendly shopping time in July, after seeing it offered at local Sobeys stores.
Sensory-friendly shopping began as a grassroots initiative at a Prince Edward Island Sobeys in the fall of 2018 and spread to other locations in Atlantic Canada. In early December, Sobeys’ owner Empire Co. Ltd. announced weekly sensory-friendly shopping hours at more than 450 of its grocery stores across the country, which include the Sobeys, Safeway, IGA and Thrifty Foods chains.
At Sequoia, Ms. Drisdelle tested the concept for one evening, letting customers know about the “relaxing shopping experience” through the store’s Facebook page.
“The feedback was so positive that we decided to keep it as a regular thing, once a week,” she says.
Now every Tuesday from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m., Sequoia dims the lights, plays meditative music, turns the beeping sound on the scanning machines down, and stops using the blenders at its smoothie bar. A sign posted on the door lets customers know about the changes.
“We thought it would be a little simple thing that we can do to just make everyone’s experience a little bit better,” she says.