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Sensory-Friendly Shopping Is on the Rise — How Storeowners Can Do It Right

Erin E. Clack

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In the face of fierce competition from e-commerce players, brick-and-mortar retailers are increasingly looking to lure customers with in-store experiences that engage all the senses — think flashy digital signage, dramatic lighting, video displays, curated music playlists and even enticing aromas.

For some shoppers, however, these atmospheric elements — meant to boost people’s moods and motivate them to make purchases — are anything but inviting. The cacophony of sounds, lights and smells can make a simple trip to the store stressful and challenging for individuals with autism or other sensory sensitivities.

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But amid an ongoing conversation around diversity and inclusion, a number of retailers are finally catering to this much-neglected customer segment by offering sensory-friendly events and spaces. And they’re not alone.

A growing list of airports in the U.S. and abroad have opened quiet rooms where families can await their upcoming flights, and movie theaters are beginning to host sensory-friendly film screenings with lowered sound and brighter light. Meanwhile, department stores including Macy’s, JCPenney and Target have experimented with quiet shopping hours at select locations.

During these shopping events, the lights are dimmed, the music is turned off and the number of employees on the floor is minimized, all with the goal of reducing stimuli and creating a quieter, more calming environment. Some stores also provide special sensory rooms or designated quiet zones where customers can find respite from the bustling atmosphere of a store.

Though the holiday shopping season is a time when crowds and noise hit an all-time high, some retail companies are using it as an opportunity to reach out to the special needs community.

This year, CBL Properties, which owns and operates 68 malls, outlets and open-air shopping centers across the country, will stage Santa Cares events in 41 of its venues in partnership with the nonprofit Autism Speaks. Families will be invited to attend a private, sensory friendly photo session and experience the time-honored tradition of a visit with Santa.

“It’s important to us to provide a comfortable and enjoyable experience for all of our customers,” said Mary Lynn Morse, CBL’s VP of marketing. “We have been doing this for several years now, and each year we receive overwhelmingly positive feedback from families, [prompting us] to add even more events to accommodate the demand. Our hope is that these events create holiday magic and memories for kids who may not otherwise have the opportunity to visit with Santa.”

Why It’s Important

Retail expert Gabriella Santaniello, CEO and founder of A Line Partners, said such inclusive initiatives are a long time coming considering the sheer size of this consumer group. Roughly one in 59 U.S. children has autism spectrum disorder, according to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There are also countless other disabilities and disorders that contribute to people feeling painful sensory overload, including attention deficit hyperactive disorder, anxiety, concussion, post-traumatic stress disorder, Alzheimer’s disease, sensory processing disorder and Tourette syndrome.

“This is a huge percentage of the population that has been all but ignored by retailers until now,” Santaniello said. “We’re still very much in the nascent stages of this [movement], but stores are certainly beginning to look at ways to be more inclusive to customers with sensory needs.”

She noted that these events are no longer a nice-to-do but a must-do if retailers want to remain relevant and competitive, considering today’s changing attitudes and demographics.

Right now, Generation Z (those born after 1996) is on the cusp of surpassing millennials as the largest generation, accounting for roughly 32 percent of the global population, according to new research from Bloomberg.

Already wielding more than $143 billion in buying power, this group is the most ethnically diverse in history, and studies show that inclusivity is deeply important to them. “From different body sizes and gender identities to physical abilities, Gen Z consumers want to see everyone represented,” Santaniello said.

How to Do It Right

When it comes to implementing meaningful changes, retailers often don’t know where to start, according to Christel Seeberger, an occupational therapist who has spent 25 years working with people with sensory sensitivities. The founder of Sensory Friendly Solutions, Seeberger advises retailers and other businesses on how to be more welcoming to this community.

“It can be a little overwhelming, so I encourage retailers to start small and simple and to offer what [solutions] they can,” she said. “Reducing noise, in any capacity, is one of the best things retailers can do. In our extensive research, noise has consistently been cited as the No. 1 problem, even for those without sensory challenges. So while stores may reduce and eliminate significant noise during specific quiet shopping hours, taking steps to do so outside those hours helps everyone — customers and staff alike.”

Involving your employees in every step of the process is also critical, Seeberger advised. “The most successful sensory transformations that we have undertaken have occurred when the team is part of both identifying problems and implementing solutions,” she said. “Front-line staff have a keen sense of what changes can be made and how to make them. When we help businesses, we conduct surveys with both staff and customers to help engage everyone working together from day one.”

Most importantly, Seeberger added, retailers need to clearly communicate with customers about the accommodations they offer. This allows sensory-sensitive customers to be prepared and aware of their options, helping them to avoid stressful or uncomfortable situations.

“A common barrier is that people with a disability or challenge don’t know what you’re doing and don’t have enough details about your location to know if it will be a good fit for them,” she explained, noting that information can be shared via a retailer’s website, social media and in-store signage. Seeberger’s website, Sensoryfriendly.net, includes a finder feature, allowing people to search for information on sensory-friendly businesses and experiences in their area, from stores and hotels to museums and restaurants.

Retailers shouldn’t be afraid to make mistakes along the way. “This is a new frontier, so it’s going to be a learning experience for everyone,” said Santaniello, who suggests companies consider partnering with an advocacy group or other expert to guide them. “There is always valuable feedback to be gained from the community, whether it’s an organization like Autism Speaks, health care providers, influencers or focus groups.”

And even if stores don’t get everything correct out of the gate, Seeberger said the point is that they are showing their customers that they care and are committed to making everyone feel comfortable and welcome. “My biggest piece of advice is that something is always better than nothing. Try to make one sensory-friendly change and see what happens. Learn from it and build from there.”

Want More?

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