Asda, a UK supermarket giant, has trialled a ‘quiet hour’ in one of its superstores in an attempt to create a comfortable shopping environment for its autistic and disabled shoppers. The branch opened an hour early with its staff greeting and ushering customers into a store that had temporarily suspended escalators, music and display TVs.
This quiet hour was designed specifically to reduce the sensory over-stimulation usually encountered in modern day shopping experiences, which disorientate and confuse those who suffer from certain impairments. Asda has strived to make what many take for granted as a seemingly mundane, basic every-day task, more bearable for those who struggle.
The feedback Asda received from participating families and individuals was wholly positive and as a result, the same initiative has been adopted by a further eight shops in the same Manchester shopping centre.
With so many competitors in the retail business vying for consumers, the modern grassroots marketing strategy of most shops is essentially ‘grab the consumer’s attention in the most direct and dynamic way’. Cue loud music, flashy signs, garish alternative décor, constantly changing promotional displays and a host of other concepts designed to make them immediately stand out.
Sensory overstimulation is disruptive and unnerving for a variety of people, from those hard of hearing who are inundated with loud and aggressive sounds, to children with ADHD who are hyper sensitive to sensory stimuli, to those with anxiety disorders who are fretful of regular layout reorganisation.
Disabilities and autism aren’t generally discussed at great length in the public forum, fostering a climate of miseducation and misunderstanding. Neurological disorders such as autism aren’t immediately visually identifiable, meaning that their needs are generally overlooked and under-considered. Social and community life is seen as a challenging area by three in ten disabled people. Of those polled by OPM, an independent research organisation, 18% cited their anxiety as the biggest hindrance affecting them while pursuing leisure activities. Much can still be done for them to reduce stress and increase access.
This new initiative, championed by Asda, has strong sustainability benefits. It provides those affected negatively by sensory overstimulation with calm, safe places, reducing their anxiety and fostering a better relationship between them and mainstream society, one a lot less daunting and confusing. It also raises awareness among the general public and promotes understanding and empathy, paving the way for a more inclusive and understanding society as a whole, one that doesn’t relegate to the side-lines those that it doesn’t fully understand. Such initiatives may help to reassure the autistic and disabled communities that there is a wider support group for them, fostering the sentiment that they are being recognised and embraced as a part of society.
It is not only those with autism and disabilities that can benefit from such changes. The wider population will no doubt appreciate the lack of loud music and blaring adverts constantly forced upon them through the tannoy system and display monitors. Respite from sensory bombardment might give people the chance to slow down, not to be rash or impulsive and consider their actions more, perhaps even resulting in better consumer choices - such as healthier food instead of quick-fix instant meals. A slower and more relaxed shopping pace might also broadly but tangibly increase social cohesion as shoppers might be encouraged to talk to each other more.
Asda has gained a degree of positive publicity through this initiative and is seen by many to be adhering to its social duty towards its wide range of customers. Some naysayers will label this as a promotional stunt or a token gesture of corporate social responsibility. Whatever the case, the autistic and disabled community are the real winners and this step forward by ASDA has delighted groups such as the Business Disability Forum (BDF), who are glad to see a major business striving towards “achieving disability best practice”. If the first stepping stone to the implementation of greater social inclusivity comes in the form of a promotional campaign, advocate groups such as the BDF can take the positive outcome from this and use it to move forward, gaining more traction for the cause.
Image: Raquel Camargo / Flickr