Have a dedicated store time
Supermarkets in particular can accommodate customers with autism by having time dedicated to them, where the store is altered to accommodate different sensory needs.
Supermarkets such as Asda (UK), Lidl (UK), Supervalu (Ireland), Morrisons (UK) and Coles (Australia) have a dedicated quiet hour. Lights are dimmed, there are no announcements and checkout beepers are turned off.
Likewise, Vodafone in Ireland has autism-friendly shopping hours during which appointment times are increased so that customers do not have to wait in store. To complement this service, noise is minimised and priority seating is available. Autism ambassadors also work in the store.
Since 2017, 16,000 shops in the UK have dedicated store time to benefit autistic shoppers, following an annual initiative created by the National Autistic Society. Having a dedicated time may be the most abrupt store adjustment, but possibly the most beneficial for customers with more significant atypical sensory needs.
The Quieter Hour initiative, introduced by Morrisons, was motivated by one of its staff members: a mother with an autistic son. Once the company recognised she was one of many in its customer network, the initiative became national. It goes to show that talking to your customers and staff can shine light on overlooked needs.
Train your staff
Staff members should be able to come to the aid of any customer in the store. Training staff to be able to assist a person with autism is as crucial as ensuring staff maintain basic First-Aid or CPR skills. It’s critical retailers collaborate with experts on this.
Several Vodafone stores in Ireland have incorporated multiple initiatives to improve the shopping experience of autistic customers, among them, staff training and workshops with autism non-profit AsIAm.
Provide tools for sensory relief
Having tools to dull or divert the senses can provide relief and comfort in an otherwise overwhelming situation. KultureCity is an American company that sells sensory bags containing noise-cancelling ear defenders, various anti-anxiety fidget toys and visual cue cards so customers can indicate what they need.
Some retailers have taken this idea on board by providing those items in store. Some Vodafone stores in Ireland provide relaxation boxes that include sunglasses, scented tags, stress balls and ear defenders. Irish supermarket chain Supervalu provides a customised trolley with a shopping game to help autistic children focus on something specific while also enabling them to take part in the shopping process, reducing the stress of the grocery shop for the children and their parents.
This is a great option for when customers aren’t able to get to the store during the quiet hour.
Consider light and glare
Consider how the physical store design can reduce sensory stimulation. Is your lighting adjustable, and if so, are different sections of the store able to be controlled separately? Additionally, surfaces with reduced glare, anti-glare ceiling lights and screen protectors for media devices should be standard practice in retail.
Have a clear plan and communicate it
A structured shopping journey with predictable moments can be beneficial to neurodiverse customers. For some people, even slight changes in routine during daily life can cause distress, so it can be hugely beneficial for stores to have well-designed spaces and clear navigation throughout. Companies can also help customers prepare for their shopping experience ahead of time by communicating what the store is like, where things are located, the best times to visit and what to expect on arrival and departure. For example, will there be someone posted at the doors? If they don’t purchase anything, can they leave without having to pass a register?
The Museum of Victoria in Melbourne provides sensory maps that colour codes areas according to the quantity of multimedia, noise and light. Available online or on-site, this allows visitors to exclusively visit low sensory areas or prepare for high sensory areas ahead of time. Dividing areas according to sensory inputs may not be practical for many retail stores. However, no store or store designer is exempt from having an awareness and consideration of sensory stimuli.
The website of the Melbourne Museum also has social scripts outlining and describing the processes and experiences that customers will likely encounter when they visit the museum. For example: “If I get lost, a customer service officer can help me. They wear black t-shirts and have coloured straps around their necks.” This allows autistic customers to prepare themselves for interactions and prevent possible distress.
Express service and easy navigation
Even with neurodivergent experiential measures, a fast shopping trip is often a good shopping trip. Having processes in place to reduce in-store waiting — such as click-and-collect — is important. Part of the solutions for Vodafone in Ireland was to provide priority sales and service to customers who had an ID card provided by the autistic non-profit organisation AsIAm.
Westfield in Australia launched a Sensitive Santa initiative in 2019. Children with sensory needs could visit the shopping centre before stores opened to have a photo taken with Santa. The shopping centre was a quieter environment with minimal waiting times, and a social script is provided if necessary.
These five examples provide a great starting point for a neurodiverse retail strategy, but should be considered in conjunction with your broader consumer insights to ensure that the solutions are specific to your business.
This article is in the latest issue of Inside Retail Asia.