Shopping can be an anxiety-inducing experience for those who live with a disability. For those with non-visible conditions such as cognitive differences and sensory sensitivities, the customer experience is at best, hit and miss. Neurodiversity (neurological-diversity) is the term coined by Australian sociologist Judy Singer in the late 1990s and refers to natural variations in the brain that manifest in sensory sensitivities, learning and communication styles that are different to mainstream.
am. The neurodiverse tapestry includes, but is not limited to, Autism Spectrum (previously Asperger’s Syndrome), Attention Hyperactivity (ADHD, ADD), Dyslexia and Tourette Syndrome. Living as a neurodivergent person in a neurotypical world is often compared to an Android operating system plugging into iOS. Doesn’t quite work. For people who identify as neurodivergent, the average shopping experience can be so daunting that customers may leave a store feeling panicked or in fight-or-flight mode with physical symptoms including nausea, headaches and heart palpitations. Neurodivergent customers may choose to avoid an in-store experience if wayfinding is unclear, or if there is sensory overwhelm (hyper vigilance to noise, smells or crowds). As a result, customers may create their own safe and accessible experiences by wearing noise-cancelling earphones, shopping at times when there is less crowding, or opting for online rather than in-store to avoid queues. That said, there are positive sensory experiences that can be elicited in store, too. Many neurodivergent customers relish tactile experiences and the visual stimulation from product colours, choice and texture. Ranges that offer products to help with executive functioning (the way in which the brain manages working memory, organisation tasks, self-monitoring and emotional regulation), or that cater to special interests, have an opportunity to create brand loyal customers – so long as the experience is accessible. Examples of global brands that have launched novel ways to personalise shopping include South Korean cosmetics company Innisfree. The brand launched a personalised shopping basket at the store entrance: one for shoppers who want assistance, and the other for shoppers who don’t want assistance and prefer not to be approached. Flannels, a high-end fashion retailer in the UK, also offers a personalised shopping basket in store. Australian retailers, too, are recognising the needs of the neurodivergent community. In 2017, Coles initiated its Quiet Hour in response to a customer’s suggestion for a more accessible, low-sensory shopping experience. In 2020, Kmart launched its Quiet Space, catering for Autistic shoppers and their families. Coles has since announced a partnership with HammondCare to cater for customers with dementia, another example where cognitive function in the ageing population is an important accessibility factor. The neurodivergent customer segment is often hidden and may be viewed as a minority group. However, diagnoses are on the rise in both children and adults, and there is a movement amongst the neurodiverse community to self-advocate for their needs in both the workplace and in society, with a focus on often invisible cognitive challenges and undisclosed conditions. Through the lens of the customer Lisa Cox has processing difficulties resulting from a stroke that left her with brain scarring. Her invisible disability affects her speech, memory and eyesight. “Someone needs to show me repeatedly how to do something, especially with technology devices. I avoid the in-store experience at all costs because retail assistants often mistake my cognitive needs for an intellectual disability. These are two very different things,” she said. “I need someone who can take the time to explain things differently and with patience. I own a credit card and am ready to spend but I will often leave retail stores, purchasing power intact, to find a better customer experience elsewhere. “I do as much as I can online to avoid uncomfortable experiences. Some stores are too confusing to find my way around so I buy most of that online or send my husband in with a photo!” Lisa recently found herself with a need to learn a new technology device. She visited an Apple retail store where a specialist was able to spend time with her until she felt comfortable using the new device. Repetitive instructions and demonstrations were the key, and Lisa said it was the best 30 minutes she’s experienced in a store in a long time. “I didn’t feel anxious (like I often do) after leaving a retailer, I posted to social media about my positive experience and have since told many people about it”. Technology retailers, such as Apple, are demonstrating their diversity approach through initiatives such as Today@Apple, a service for customers who can book a time in-store to better understand accessibility product features. Inclusion and diversity is high on the agenda, and accessibility features are an important function of Apple products. Store specialists are encouraged to engage in accessibility, diversity and inclusion discussions to better understand customer needs. “Currently, there are retailers doing ‘bits and pieces’ of inclusion but no one brand really owns the space in a truly systemic way,” Cox said. “When we think about inclusive design, there are design elements that can benefit everyone. For example, I told my Apple story to my parents who don’t have invisible disabilities but just need some ‘extra help’ understanding technology.” Opportunities abound As we understand more about neuro differences and identities, there are opportunities for retailers to engage with customers of all abilities; hidden or visible. Listening to the needs and interests of the neurodivergent community, including sensitivities and communication preferences, could be game-changing for many shoppers. Retailers that understand neurodivergence holistically will be able to offer accessible and inclusive customer experiences to differentiate themselves from competitors, attract brand loyalty and community goodwill. The ability for retailers to offer inclusive experiences through their range, store layout and service proposition (e.g. concierge vs self-service) can make a huge difference to customer wellbeing by minimising anxiety and maximising joyfulness.