Sobeys rolls out sensory-friendly shopping nationally

The grocer expands a pilot project to make all of its stores more inclusive of people with autism or other health considerations.

Sobeys has implemented “sensory-friendly” shopping hours across all of its stores in Canada to accommodate shoppers with sensory sensitives.

The hours include dimming store lights, turning off music and announcements over the PA and mitigating cash register noise. Staff are also encouraged to speak more softly and not perform certain tasks, like gathering grocery carts.

The national roll-out of more inclusive shopping periods affects 450 Sobeys, Safeway, IGA, Thrifty Foods, Foodland and FreshCo banners Canada-wide, and the announcement was timed to coincide with yesterday’s International Day of Persons with Disabilities. It is being done in partnership with Autism Canada.

According to the latest research, one of the most commonly reported sensory sensitivities in Autism Spectrum Disorder is sensitivity to sounds, with certain frequencies and hearing multiple voices at once being perceived as annoying, painful or even totally overwhelming at times.

An explainer video from Sobeys and created by Notch Video informs viewers of the stats behind the “significant” sensory symptoms people experience. It also depicts Cape Breton third graders advocating on behalf of shopper friendly environments, in a letter writing campaign to their local grocer.

Heather DeBlois, director of diversity and inclusion at Sobeys, tells strategy that the video was inspired by a teacher who saw a pilot of a sensory friendly Sobeys store in Prince Edward Island, and got her students to do some project work, which involved eventually presenting a case for local store managers to adopt sensory friendly shopping themselves.

What she finds particularly moving, is how kids shared their perspectives about how the initiative would let them be able to shop with their siblings.

DeBlois says it’s an important initiative so that everyone feels welcome in Sobeys stores – according to the latest Public Health Agency of Canada figures, an estimated one in 66 children between the ages of 5 and 17 have been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. DeBlois adds, however, that it’s not just children with autism that can benefit, but also seniors and people with other health considerations, such as a history of concussions. A customer in Prince Edward Island who underwent heart surgery elected to shop during a sensory friendly hour during the pilot phase.

Through its messaging, the brand has positioned itself as “Canada’s family grocery store” and DeBlois reports that the banner prides itself on “creating an inclusive environment that reflects our diverse customer base.” Sensory-friendly shopping was piloted in a few Maritime locations, and expanded to a handful of locations in Toronto, Winnipeg and Edmonton in the summer and fall. DeBlois says that the sensory-friendly shopping initiative has been warmly received.

“This is very much a grassroots initiative, so we leave it up to the store as to what their hours will be,” DeBlois says, and adds that it’s offering signage at front-of-store to notify when these hours take place, as well as making sure staff is available to provide any additional help.

Other brands have been exploring options to make their locations more inclusive to people with sensory sensitivity. In 2015, Cineplex Entertainment announced that it would offer a schedule of Sensory Friendly Screenings at select theaters nationwide, that included 2D projection, increased auditorium lighting, lower volume and smaller crowds. These screenings (done in partnership with Autism Speaks Canada) are presented in what the brand describes as a “lights up, sound down environment” and take place approximately every four to six weeks on Saturday mornings. That same year, several Toys “R” Us stores in the U.K. offered sensory-friendly shopping days, and a few of its U.S. counterparts followed suit shortly thereafter.