'Sensory-friendly shopping' comes to Sobeys near Tecumseh

The Sobeys grocery store near Tecumseh is dimming its lights and turning down the volume for a calmer, quieter, specialized shopping experience.

It's called sensory-friendly shopping — which means reduced lighting in the store, no overhead music, an absence of announcements over the P.A. system, fewer noises at the cash register and minimal cart collection.

The goal is to make shopping easier for people with autism spectrum disorder.

"We want to include a shopping experience for everybody that is within our community," said store manager Rob Hayes.

Sobeys first tested sensory-friendly shopping in its Atlantic Canada locations last fall. The Sobeys on Amy Croft Drive is one of four stores in Ontario joining the pilot project — in partnership with Autism Ontario.

"It's our part of giving back to the community and creating a great shopping experience for everyone — not just the everyday shopper," said Hayes.

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Trying to find a balance between best practices for staff and accommodating all customers is a bit of a challenge, according to Hayes.

For example, there needs to be enough light for staff to conduct their work, while also not being too bright for customers who may experience sensory overload.

Hayes said sensory-friendly shopping also comes with another challenge for staff — communication without the use of a P.A. system.

"We're going to be running back and forth from department to department with a portable phone to relay calls," said Hayes, adding he's still optimistic and excited about this new endeavour.

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Customers of all ages say sensory-friendly shopping is a great way to make life easier for all families.

"I think the sensory program that they're running is a great opportunity for families to take advantage of the quiet environment in a different atmosphere where their kids can be relaxed and comfortable," said Dave Thibert.

"Parents don't have to worry about sensory overload with their children."

Thibert adds some people just don't understand how noisy and populated grocery stores can get.

"There's certain children and adults that find that sort of environment uncomfortable and difficult to function regularly in," he said.

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"With Sobeys doing this, it takes away a little bit of that to soften the atmosphere and get a daily task such as shopping done."

According to Robert Miller, a grade seven student at St. Pius X Catholic Elementary School, sensory-friendly shopping is a real need in the community. He said there are a number of challenges which autistic people face that many people do not know about.

"For example, with dimming the lights, some autistic children have sensory overload and they can't cope with all of the different lights and flashes. So it just makes it a much more calm place for them to relax and shop," said Miller.

The store will shift to its sensory-friendly shopping mode every Wednesday between 7 and 9 p.m.