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Simple changes can make a world of difference

Sobeys is now offering sensory-friendly shopping in all of their Canadian stores.
Sobeys grocery stores across the country are offering sensory-friendly shopping, including the local locations. Photo by Meagan MacEachern.

BONNYVILLE - For some, it means is shopping in peace and quiet on a Monday night, but for others, simple changes to lighting and noise can be a world of difference.

Residents stopping at Sobeys grocery store in Bonnyville and Cold Lake between the hours of 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. on Monday nights may have noticed some minor adjustments. Dimmer lights, no music, and an overall quieter atmosphere are the results of the Canadian chain’s sensory-friendly shopping initiative.

What started as a grassroots program in Prince Edward Island in 2018 has spread across the country, explained Florence Chapman, specialist in diversity and inclusion with Sobeys.

“With the incredible response we got from families and individuals in our community, the word had just spread and our PEI store teams decided to implement it in all of our stores there,” she detailed.

From there, Sobeys began offering the program across Canada, with stores in Alberta taking it on last fall.

“In really just as little as over a year it had such an incredible momentum, something that started very grassroots just kept moving ahead and along with such momentum that stores were excited to take this on and it went across all our banners,” Chapman said.

She continued, “The feedback we’ve been getting is certainly from a community of individuals that may have a sensory-sensitivity, so that can be those who have autism or have other issues that may create difficulty when they’re in high-sensory environments where there are loud noises, bright lights, it really can be anyone... What we’ve found through this journey that we’ve been on is individuals come to the store and they may not identify with a sensitivity, but they ask if we’re closed because they can see our lights are down, but we explain that we have our sensory-friendly hours happening." 

The feedback has been ‘wow, this is a really great experience.’ I think when you take yourself out of a lot of noise and daily sensory stimulus, you find that when you’re out of it, it’s quite refreshing, it’s calming, and engaging,”

All it takes is a few minor adjustments to the stores’ everyday operations, however, those changes can mean a lot to someone with sensory-sensitivities.

“Everyone is so different, some are more sensitive than others, and this might get them out there trying new things in their community,” exclaimed Helen Brundige, program service coordinator with the Dove Centre. “It might even make it something that’s desired.”

“Being able to shop for their own groceries helps them with their independence, which is very important,” she added.

Cold Lake resident Deanna Toth doesn’t always shop so late on a Monday night, but was impressed by what the grocery chain has taken on.

“I think it’s great. I like it. I think it’s very broad-minded of Sobeys to do this,” she told the Nouvelle.

“I know people who suffer from anxiety, not autism… but I know anxiety is a big deal and mental health is a very real thing. If you have anxiety, going into a loud place (can be difficult) and it’s great that they can accommodate that.”

Chapman outlined just what becoming sensory-friendly entails.

“The main things are trying to get your lighting in the store down by about 50 per cent, you’re making sure it’s calm from that perspective… The other important factors are silence or reduce as much as possible the sounds coming from your store, so things like PA systems, don’t use them… telephones, turn the ringers off, scanners, turn off the beeping… You try to lower department-specific noises… and a big thing is to not collect shopping carts during those hours.”

She noted despite their signage, some residents still wonder why the store is a bit darker than usual during those hours, which “provides a great learning opportunity for customers as well.”

“Being able to be educated about what sensory-friendly is and why it’s so important. That has been a huge win for customers,” Chapman expressed.

Ensuring their sensory-friendly hours remain the same every week is vital, stressed Chapman.

“Once you start, that consistency is very important, especially for certain individuals where that consistency is really critical.”

All they’re trying to do, Chapman said, is offer the same opportunities for everyone; despite the barriers they may face in their everyday lives.

“I think it’s really important because we recognize that there are individuals in our communities where grocery shopping may be a very difficult experience and it’s important for us as a company and in our core values, we feel strongly that we want to welcome our community to be able to have that experience, certainly just like everybody else. We find creating a great customer experience for everybody is really important, and I think this has taught us a lot of being reflective of the needs of our communities, and that’s what we’re here to do.”

Meagan MacEachern, Bonnyville Nouvelle

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