Turn down the lights and noise: sensory friendly grocery stores
July 29, 2019 8:35 AM   Subscribe

For some, grocery shopping can be sensory overload — there's music playing, machines whirring, cashiers and customers chatting. To remedy that, a grocery store in Nelson, B.C. has implemented sensory-friendly shopping on Sunday nights to create a safe environment for customers who require calm surroundings. "I think we underestimate sometimes how many people would appreciate a little bit more quiet in their lives," said David Reid, marketing and communications manager at the Kootenay Co-op. Grocery stores across Canada are taking guidance from provincial Autism Societies, turning down lights and reducing noise to create a less stressful and overwhelming experience for adults and children with autism or other conditions that require low sensory environments.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl (39 comments total) 37 users marked this as a favorite
That's so cool. There was a post on the Blue recently (that I'm not finding) about cutting edge supermarket design, and how it is designed to be more immersive and make the shopping experience more enjoyable, but there were a fair amount of folks in the thread saying that they would prefer a simpler, quieter experience. I think this makes for a nice counterpart.
posted by Rock Steady at 8:40 AM on July 29, 2019 [5 favorites]

This is awesome. I find big box and grocery stores to be overwhelming all the time, and I'm supposedly a normie. I can't imagine what a boon these places would be to someone with autism, agoraphobia, extreme anxiety, sensory sensitivities...etc. Good on these folks.
posted by es_de_bah at 8:43 AM on July 29, 2019 [12 favorites]

Oh man I wish this was done... anywhere I have to shop. I had to pick up some emergency groceries at a TJ's after work yesterday and I'm wandering around putting things in my basket mildly disassociating. That's pretty bog standard for me in a grocery store. My local Asian market is really good though, light colored walls, mild music, well lit. Even there I can get overwhelmed but not as bad as a TJ's or a Safeway.
posted by Homo neanderthalensis at 8:45 AM on July 29, 2019 [11 favorites]

That's one reason I like the Aldi's nearby: no music! It's wonderful! And small, and never full of cacophony. ....
posted by mightshould at 8:50 AM on July 29, 2019 [5 favorites]

as a person on the spectrum, let met add: YEAH!
posted by DreamerFi at 8:51 AM on July 29, 2019

how it is designed to be more immersive and make the shopping experience more enjoyable

i don't want my shopping experience to be immersive, i want the peaches to be in the same place they always are and for there not to be sirens and flashing lights announcing a sale on canned beans.

also i either want the produce misters to also mist me or i want to be allowed to nap with the lettuce
posted by poffin boffin at 8:57 AM on July 29, 2019 [28 favorites]

I schedule my grocery shopping because I need to get in and out before it gets crowded with people but after they’ve put the rotisserie chickens out. I would rather go without some items for the week than be put through the hellscape of a grocery store in the city on a Sunday afternoon.
posted by sallybrown at 9:00 AM on July 29, 2019 [7 favorites]

Aside from the noise and lights, pretty much every piece of packaging in a supermarket is designed to SHOUT AT YOU AND GRAB YOUR ATTENTION AMIDST ALL THE OTHER SHOUTING PACKAGES. It's pretty tiring.
posted by carter at 9:06 AM on July 29, 2019 [4 favorites]

My partner uses grocery shopping as a barometer of how well he's coping with various cognitive and sensory issues; it's often just Too Much to handle. A sensory-friendly shopping hour wouldn't solve the whole thing - as carter notes, sometimes the problem is more about Why Are There Twenty Kinds Of Black Beans That All Seem Functionally Identical And How Do I Process This Information Flood - but it would definitely help. We'd definitely love to see this locally.
posted by Stacey at 9:11 AM on July 29, 2019 [10 favorites]

The worst sensory assault are those airblade hand dryers in the bathroom. And there are other ones that are actually called jet-something and they sound like a jet taking off. I have a thick sensory skin relative to many, and these things, especially in a busy restroom like an airport, are unbearable.
posted by yoz420 at 9:12 AM on July 29, 2019 [3 favorites]

Oh my fucking god, please bring this here. Please, please, please, please, please. Please.
That's one reason I like the Aldi's nearby: no music! It's wonderful! And small, and never full of cacophony.
And super wide aisles! And no overwhelming choices! Aldi is the best.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 9:14 AM on July 29, 2019 [4 favorites]

Yet another example of how accessible design makes life better for everyone.
posted by Dip Flash at 9:41 AM on July 29, 2019 [19 favorites]

"The worst sensory assault are those airblade hand dryers in the bathroom"

OMFG. When my daughter was a baby, I'd take her places, and if she even sensed that we were walking by a bathroom with one of those in there, she'd start screaming. She was never a screamer, but those things were traumatic for her.

"I find big box and grocery stores to be overwhelming all the time, and I'm supposedly a normie"

Agree 100%. I'm happy for people for whom this is an urgent concern rather than just an issue of comfort, but damn, how did we let it get so bad that even neurotypical people feel assaulted in public?
posted by kevinbelt at 9:44 AM on July 29, 2019 [1 favorite]

I would gladly pay a premium on my groceries to shop in a store that is implementing this. Seems like turning down lights and music would result in a net electricity savings for the store in any case. Part of me wonders if they need the light to be at a certain brightness to help with loss prevention, though.
posted by allkindsoftime at 9:44 AM on July 29, 2019 [1 favorite]

The Target in my neighborhood was one of my go-tos for staples like toilet paper and vitamins. I went there every week.

Then they closed for 18 months for a big re-modeling. And when they re-opened, I could not maintain my sense of balance because of all the lights and shiny/reflective crap they had added to the interior. I couldn't navigate the store without keeping my eyes down and focused on the floor. If I looked up, I became disoriented and that quickly changed to panic.

That Target has toned it down it the last few years, so I can navigate the store. But I don't wander far from my usual course.

OMG: I've become an old crank.
posted by SPrintF at 10:00 AM on July 29, 2019 [3 favorites]

Some of the new Targets play fast pop music at an above-background level, which is really really awful.
posted by JoeZydeco at 10:03 AM on July 29, 2019

When I was visiting my 5 year old nephew a few months ago, I found out that Chuck-E-Cheese (of all companies!) has a "Sensory Sensitive Sundays," where they open 2 hours before their usual opening time with low/no music and dimmed lights. It's actually a really nice experience compared to the usual loud blaring overstimulation I associate with children's restaurants.
posted by JDHarper at 10:10 AM on July 29, 2019 [6 favorites]

My PTSD is no where as bad as it used to be, but Oh the times I have not shopped, stopped shopping, cried and or fled because shopping spaces were just over stimulating on so so so many levels. I am much more tolerant these days, but would pledge my loyalty to a store like this in a heartbeat.
posted by AlexiaSky at 10:16 AM on July 29, 2019 [3 favorites]

I swear the lighting is why people shop at Whole Foods. Have you ever taken a photograph in a supermarket? It will look green. You don't notice because your brain automatically corrects the coloring. Who enjoys fluorescent lighting? I also think this is one of the reasons going to the DMV, courthouses, etc. can be so painful.

Anyway, the sensory overload aspect of this reminds me of a friend from Russia who described first coming to the U.S. in the 80's and being given a dollar to buy something at the supermarket. She was so overwhelmed by the number of choices she gave up and gave him the dollar back.

A while back Republicans were pushing the idea of no brand government run supermarkets where all the items would be as cheap as possible. I thought, can I shop there? Half my shopping time is spent evaluating pricing and making sure the food is somewhat nutritional. Do that work for me? Great.
posted by xammerboy at 10:24 AM on July 29, 2019 [1 favorite]

really though this is yet another reason I have found it hard to live outside of NYC; the 24h availability of stuff is so important not because I'm unreasonably demanding (do not interact with this spurious claim) but because being able to Do Regular Things at quiet hours of the night is invaluable to me.
posted by poffin boffin at 10:25 AM on July 29, 2019 [6 favorites]

Prediction: this time slot becomes overcrowded, because like 90% of people are overstimulated and crave calming experiences. Store expands sensory-friendly hours. Store realizes sensory-friendly hours are somehow costing them money, and kills the program.
posted by scose at 10:26 AM on July 29, 2019 [1 favorite]

Oh, and my most recent experience with sensory overloads was visiting an outdoor concert of classical music where the venue recently put up a large mega-sized, ultra-bright, movie screen of the orchestra. It took me forever to find a spot where it wasn't in my field of view. I was so psyched to just sit in a lawn chair in a park among the trees and chill out. Most people seemed to love it though, so it will be staying.
posted by xammerboy at 10:29 AM on July 29, 2019

I definitely have walked out of stores in the past because I was just too damn overwhelmed and overstimulated. When I was in grad school, mumble years ago, I used to go to the store in the middle of the night. It was way better. Also I had fucking horrible insomnia from PTSD. Fast forward mumble years, and I go to the store early in the morning to beat the crowds. It's not unusual to find me there at 8 AM. My PTSD is pretty much nonexistent, but I am still sensitive to light and sound.

If I had a store like that locally, I'd be there a hundred times over. Plus, I would pay a premium for groceries there. I'm a huge frugal shopper, but a better experience all around would make me support a place that's trying to help people in small ways.
posted by kathrynm at 10:48 AM on July 29, 2019 [1 favorite]

(do not interact with this spurious claim)

That is brilliant and I am still laughing audibly. :-)

Anyway: I went shopping at my local supermarket during a power outage. To my surprise, they didn't close -- they just taped off the fridges/freezers and accepted cash only. The scanners were working off some secondary power source. This was in the middle of the day, and the store was adequately lit by its windows, skylights, and emergency lights. It was restful!
posted by aws17576 at 11:21 AM on July 29, 2019 [2 favorites]

Costco does not do those typical dumb things, but they have a ripe opportunity to find a new customer segment if they could design the space around reducing the chaotic movements of bulk consumers through their store. People are also stimuli!! They need more rest stops/"chillout" rooms to lengthen our stays.

I use my Mom's membership once a year to buy meat for the family reunion. I find I need a nap if I'm in there for more than 15 minutes, which is the opposite of the behavior their business model should encourage.

The only thing that comes to mind is the "guided tour" design of Ikea, but the same thing happens to me there.
posted by SoundInhabitant at 11:33 AM on July 29, 2019 [2 favorites]

Huh. I never could have imagined that the supermarket would pose so much of a challenge in this way. My own experience is that just walking to and from my local one is far more cacophanous, and full of competing sensory stimuli, mostly unpleasant ones. The store itself is an oasis by comparison.
posted by hyperbolic at 11:40 AM on July 29, 2019

For some context on this: I live in Nelson and occasionally shop at the Co-Op. It's already relaxing compared to other grocery stores - with none of the flashing lights and sale announcements that I heard about upthread. I'd heard about this earlier when grabbing some shopping on the way home after work. The new store that opened a few years ago is very nice, and is a great alternative to the corporate stores in town (Safeway and Save-On).

However I only occasionally shop there because it's expensive, with mostly organic meats and produce and the types of products associated with that. I'm more than willing to pay a premium for better products on occasion, but when feeding a family of 4, shopping there full time is challenging.
posted by sauril at 11:42 AM on July 29, 2019 [1 favorite]

Once again, designing for accessibility makes the world better for just about everyone.
posted by crush at 11:55 AM on July 29, 2019 [6 favorites]

I'm in favor. I already shop later Sunday evenings (like, after 9 pm) to try to minimize the insanity, and, as far as I know, I'm neurotypical.
posted by praemunire at 11:57 AM on July 29, 2019

The first time I tried to grocery shop after my concussion I felt like I was going to die. I managed it, but it took me 90 minutes to do what I can usually do in 20.
posted by jeather at 12:22 PM on July 29, 2019 [3 favorites]

I noticed a sign at my local Sobey's announcing a similar evening. I'll admit I was a bit puzzled because this is a pretty low key store already. No music, no flashing lights. The loudest things are the self-service check outs when they are issuing instructions.

I can see where turning down the lights a bit could be helpful to some people. (Personally I'd be happy if they dialed back the air conditioner--walking into the place feels like stepping into a cooler.)

It's one of those things that doesn't harm anybody and helps some, so it's a good thing they're trying it out.
posted by sardonyx at 12:23 PM on July 29, 2019

Once again, designing for accessibility makes the world better for just about everyone.

I've been thinking about whether the sensory-friendly settings would be a net benefit for people with most of the usual sensory changes of aging. Quieter and less flashy, probably yes; dimmer, probably really not.
posted by clew at 1:13 PM on July 29, 2019

dimmer doesn't necessarily mean poorly-lit, it can just mean that the same level of lighting used to land aircraft in heavy storms could just continue doing that thing instead of illuminating the cereal aisle. it can also mean warmer toned lighting instead of harsh bright cold blue lighting, as with evening/bedtime modes on screened devices.
posted by poffin boffin at 3:38 PM on July 29, 2019 [7 favorites]

I wish I could work there. The store I work in recently added horrible bright track lighting and blaring music and between that and the incessant walkie talkie chatter with loud bosses shouting for the same few people over and over again I've contemplated quitting because of the noise and light alone. I have to hide in empty offices during my breaks so I can have time to recover-- if I go in the break room, everyone still has their walkie talkie on, and wants to chat, and watch loud movies. I don't know how this stuff doesn't bother them, but it feels really hard to get by in this world sometimes.
posted by the liquid oxygen at 6:04 PM on July 29, 2019 [3 favorites]

Harris Teeters and Fresh Markets are so pleasantly dim but then ruin it with the tiny, cramped aisles where i feel like i'm going to knock every jar off the shelf and also i can't afford them ): every other store I get dizzy and spacey from the bright lighting. I spent a whole afternoon last week fruitlessly searching for a pair of migraine glasses that would work for me since I hear they have benefits for autistic people with light sensitivity. I would love to work at a grocery store except I don't think I could get through a whole shift of this.

every piece of packaging in a supermarket is designed to SHOUT AT YOU AND GRAB YOUR ATTENTION AMIDST ALL THE OTHER SHOUTING PACKAGES

SO MANY TIMES i end up staring at an aisle for several minutes trying to even begin to start reading the labels to find what I need because they're all competing for my entire attention and I can't take in any of it
posted by gaybobbie at 7:27 PM on July 29, 2019

I shop at Stater Bros (Krogers) in Santa Ana. The music is on point. I heard Howard Jones, Nellie Furtado, and Prince just the other day.
posted by Brocktoon at 12:41 AM on July 30, 2019

One of the two major supermarkets here in Australia (Coles) offer this at 256 of 800ish locations. The fact it started as a trial and has been expanded indicates it's been pretty successful.
posted by onya at 1:40 AM on July 30, 2019

Morrisons are doing the same thing here in the UK, with a Quieter Hour 9-10 every Saturday morning.

Now, if we could just get the rest of the high street to follow suit... I don't generally have a problem with supermarkets here (aside from that horrible interlude earlier this year when M&S were using chirpy shouty celebrity voices on their auto-tills), but there are plenty of other places that I can't set foot in because the music is so loud, and I gather the big shopping centres are a special kind of hell even for the neurotypical.
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 2:16 AM on July 30, 2019

I don't know why the voiceovers on the self-checkouts have to be so loud in the first place.

Oh lord, yes, this. I often can't tell whether the shouty voice telling someone to put their card in the machine is from the one I'm using or the one back-to-back with it, which makes it hard to imagine they're actually useful to anyone; plus the unprompted 'Please scan an item, or select "Finish and Pay"' nudges when you take half a second longer to scan the next item than it thinks you should need... Please don't shout at me! I'm doing my best!

I'm not even sure why they have to talk to us in the first place. I've been vaguely assuming it's for people with impaired vision, but it's just dawned on me that finding the bar code to scan would probably be a blocker for anyone with vision bad enough that they couldn't interpret the information on the screen.
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 2:32 AM on July 30, 2019 [1 favorite]

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