More than 450 stores within the Empire Company family of brands have rolled out weekly sensory friendly shopping hours at Sobeys, Safeway, IGA, Thrifty Foods, Foodland and FreshCo locations across Canada.
"The grocery store is a central hub of the community. We pride ourselves on creating an inclusive environment that reflects our diverse customer base and the communities where we work," says Heather DeBlois, Director of Diversity and Inclusion, Sobeys. "It's important to us that everyone knows they are welcome in our stores. Sensory Friendly Shopping has truly been a grassroots movement driven by our store teams, demonstrating how important it is for retailers to consider how they accommodate a diverse customer base."
A first-of-its-kind at the national level by a Canadian retailer, sensory friendly shopping focuses on removing sensory stimuli that can overwhelm an individual with sensory sensitivities.
Sobeys, Safeway, IGA, Thrifty Foods, Foodland and FreshCo store managers have been offering sensory friendly shopping on a store-by-store basis since the fall of 2018. The idea initially began as a grassroots initiative at one Sobeys store in Prince Edward Island and quickly expanded to Nova Scotia and eventually throughout Atlantic Canada.
Some of the sensory friendly initiatives include dimming store lights and turning off music, PA announcements and cash register sounds.
"After connecting with the team at Autism PEI, we took a look at what was being done in the retail shopping industry and saw that there was a huge gap in terms of accessibility, especially for people with sensory sensitivities, like those with autism or post-concussion syndrome. We decided to change that," says Tammy MacPhee, Sobeys district operator, Prince Edward Island. "Now, each week we're able to make grocery shopping a little bit easier for families who need a modified shopping environment."
Sobeys has worked closely with various local Autism networks and other community-based organizations across Canada to understand how existing barriers in grocery stores impact the experience of customers with sensory sensitivities and how these can be reduced or eliminated to create a more positive shopping experience.
Empire's stores will continue to bring more locations on board with inclusive shopping hours. Understanding that consistency is important for customers with sensory sensitivities, stores have scheduled specific days and times of the week for sensory friendly shopping hours.