The future of sensory-inclusive retail spaces – a UK supermarket introduces ‘quiet time’ in over 400 stores

  • People suffering from ASD often struggle to deal with everyday sensory information
  • Increasing numbers of UK stores introduce ‘quiet hours’
  • A more peaceful and enjoyable shopping experience for customers with autism

Stores are incredibly loud and crowded places, with a barrage of noise and light from every direction as soon as you step inside. Most of us have gotten so used to it that we barely even pay attention anymore. For us, it’s just a distraction that we can simply choose to ignore. However, one particular segment of the population doesn’t have that luxury. For people on the autism spectrum, for instance, walking into a store can be a nightmare.

People suffering from ASD often struggle to deal with everyday sensory information

It’s well documented that people on the autism spectrum have serious difficulties processing everyday sensory information like sights, sounds, smells, tastes, or touches, and that they often experience sensory overload. In other words, their brain is trying to process more information that it can handle. When that happens, they can be overwhelmed by feelings of stress, anxiety, or even physical pain. It can also severely affect the individual’s quality of life, often resulting in challenging behaviour, withdrawal, or even psychological meltdown. In fact, according to a recent study, about 64 per cent of people with ASD avoid shopping centres because they fear they might experience sensory overload. The best way to help them deal with this issue is to change their environment in a way that limits their exposure to too much sensory stimulus.

A female grocery store worker smiling at a kid while crouching in front of store shelves
It’s well documented that people on the autism spectrum have serious difficulties processing everyday sensory information like sights, sounds, smells, tastes, or touches, and that they often experience sensory overload

Increasing numbers of UK stores introduce ‘quiet hours’

In an attempt to raise public awareness about autism, the National Autistic Society invited shopping centres across the UK to join its Autism Hour initiative and tone down noise like loud music and dim their lights for one hour a day. “Our aim is to create the world’s first mass participation Autism Hour where retailers and services hold special shopping hours or sessions for autistic people and their families,” says the National Autism Society.

A number of UK retailers have launched similar initiatives in recent years, including Tesco, Asda, Clarks, and Toys ‘R’ Us. Tesco’s trial took place over six weeks in February in its Crawley, Sussex store. Every Saturday morning from 9 to 10, the store dimmed its lights and quieted its Tannoys to make the environment more welcoming to customers with autism. The trial was praised by Daniel Cadey of the National Autistic Society, who said that he hoped that “more organisations will follow Tesco’s example in Crawley and do their bit to help make sure autistic people and their families have the same opportunities to use their local shops and amenities as everyone else”.

A more peaceful and enjoyable shopping experience for customers with autism

Morrisons, one of the UK’s largest supermarket chains, recently announced a new initiative called the ‘Quieter Hour’. Launched in cooperation with the National Autistic Society, the initiative aims to make grocery shopping a more peaceful and enjoyable experience for people on the autism spectrum, as well as any other customers who may have difficulties dealing with excessive noise or flashing lights. The ‘Quieter Hour’ will take place every Saturday morning from 9 to 10 in all of Morrisons stores across the UK. During that time, the stores will implement a variety of measures designed to make them a more hospitable environment for those with sensory sensitivity. Dimming the lights, turning off music, and refraining from making any announcements are some of the things that can help.

“Around 700,000 people are on the autism spectrum in the UK. This means they see, hear and feel the world differently to other people, often in a more intense way. Morrisons ‘Quieter Hour’ is a step in the right direction for autistic people who find supermarket shopping a real struggle,” says Cadey. Prior to the nationwide rollout of the initiative, the supermarket chain first carried out a limited trial in its Lincoln, Woking, and Gainsborough stores to see whether there was any room for improvement and to identify the most suitable time for the ‘Quieter Hour’. The initiative was very well received by the customers who had friends or family members on the autistic spectrum, many of whom said that the changes had a positive impact on their lives and made their shopping experience much more enjoyable.

In recent years, public awareness about autism has increased considerably. As more people become aware of what the world feels like to an autistic person and recognise that even the most mundane activities can represent a real struggle for them, they will deliberately look for ways to help them cope.

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This article is written by Richard van Hooijdonk

This article is written by Richard van Hooijdonk

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