Local Sobeys stores offering sensory friendly shopping hours

By Ian Hunter

Walk in to a local Sobeys on a Wednesday evening, and at first glance, there's something noticeably different about the store. The aisles have a library-like quietness to it and the lights are a little dimmer.

That’s because every Wednesday from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., Sobeys offers “sensory friendly shopping”. It’s part of an initiative that stemmed from a Prince Edward Island Sobeys store and has since been implemented across all Sobeys stores in Ontario. They dim the lights and try to limit as much noise as possible.

Rochelle Bomans of the Ira Needles location of Sobeys said the program soft-launched at her store in late August. She’s been pleasantly surprised by the positive feedback from the community.

“Everyone’s getting such great responses,” Bomans said. “There are lots of people coming into the store saying: ‘This is fantastic.’ There are people with small babies that love it because it’s quieter. We do have a lot of families that have autistic children in several of our K-W stores and it really matters to them.”

Bomans explained they lower the lights in-store by 50 percent, they turn the speakers off, the phone ringers are disabled and employees refrain from any tasks which would make loud noises, such as collecting carts and operating the lottery machine. Even the sound of the checkout scanners has been disabled.

These shopping hours provide a tremendous benefit for individuals on the autism spectrum. Vanessa Coens of Autism Ontario explained how initiatives like these open doors for families who ordinarily have to make alternate arrangements to get their grocery shopping done.

“Most of the time, grocery stores are very busy, very loud, and crowded,” Coens said. “Having a designated time for people on the spectrum to do their grocery shopping reduces anxiety, stress and where it normally could be a potentially difficult time, is much more efficient and enjoyable for the individual on the Spectrum and the family.”

Sobeys spearheaded their initiative to help individuals on the autism spectrum with light and noise sensitivities, but Bomans noticed many customers enjoy the experience for the simple peace and quiet. Sensory-friendly shopping hours are open to everyone, whether or not their family members are on the autism spectrum.

“We have a lady who comes in every week who loves it,” Bomans said. “She said: ‘I work in such a fast pace, there’s so much noise and commotion. All day long I’m go, go, go. This is so relaxing.’”

Bomans hopes other retailers will follow suit and offer a similar program to help cater to families and individuals on the autism spectrum.

It’s a small gesture, but Coens said it’s a big step for a Canadian grocery to promote inclusivity in the community. “Autism Ontario is beyond grateful for retailers like Sobeys for their continued support and ongoing commitment to our families and to give them the same wonderful shopping experience as the community they reside in,” Coen said.

“With continued awareness, advocacy and education, more and more retailers like Sobeys are offering sensory friendly environments for individuals on the autism spectrum, and promoting inclusivity in their respected communities.”

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