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Posted: February 6, 2020

Sensory-friendly shopping with Monday Night Lights

By Erin Knutson

The Safeway in Cranbrook is on board with Monday Night Lights, an inclusive initiative that helps sensory sensitive shoppers have a positive experience in the grocery aisles.

Monday Night Lights is an evening to help ease the burden of those coping with sensory overload. After four months in, the program is gaining traction in the community. From the hours of 7 to 9 p.m., customers can enjoy a soothing and relaxed trip through the store.

“We started in the fall, and it’s had a positive response,” said Cranbrook Safeway Store Manager Kat Yeomans. “I’m excited to be working with a company that is promoting this kind of inclusivity.”

The initiative began with Empire Company Ltd.’s campaign to revolutionize how Canadians shop by offering Sensory Friendly Shopping hours.

The Canada-wide movement began in Prince Edward Island (PEI) and took hold on a store-by-store basis in the fall of 2018, as 450 stores consented to alter their traditional ambience, in favour of a mellow and relaxed mood.

It has been going strong ever since.

“We’re the only store in town that provides a sensory-friendly shopping option. I had a dad thank me for the opportunity to shop with his three small kids— the low key setting has helped them settle into the shopping experience, and he’s been able to bring them along without having to worry,” said Yeomans.

Along with its counterparts, Sobeys, IGA, Thrifty Foods, Foodland, and FreshCo stores, Safeway has embarked on the delivery of an original idea that was realized by Canadian retailers at a national level. The one of a kind model aims to accommodate its diverse customer base.

“Grocery stores can be intimidating, and the surprise for us was that the seniors really like it—it’s a unique, quiet, and subdued experience,” she said.

The grassroots movement began at a Sobeys store in PEI at the suggestion of an employee whose son had autism. It spiralled from there.

As part of the inclusive shopping experience, store teams have taken the lead on providing change to policy and championing for sensory sensitivity in retail.

By dimming store lights, and significantly reducing the noise level in their stores, retailers are enabling people to enjoy a new way of shopping.

“We’ve reduced the lighting by 50%, brought down the volume on the tills, shut down the paging system, and we use walkie talkies to try to keep it as calm as possible,” said Yeomans.

So far, Monday Night Lights, locally, has been catching on by word of mouth and has progressed with its consistent slot every Monday evening and a commitment from Safeway to support the sensory-friendly movement.

“It’s about inclusion, awareness, diversity, and getting the community involved—the grocery store is a central-hub, especially in a small town, so it’s important that everyone feel welcome in our store,” she said.

Yeomans also spoke about Safeway promoting Canadian values.

“It’s empowering to work for a company that gets it, gets people, and that’s great. This issue has been overlooked a lot, and now it’s being recognized,” she said.

Sensory sensitive shopping creates a unique opportunity, not only for those on the autism spectrum but for individuals looking for a calm environment to shop in, according to Florence Chapman, External Communications, and Corporate Affairs for Empire.

“I think the most wonderful aspect of the initiative is it’s grassroots. It started in one store and continued from there. The beauty of this is how it’s unfolded, and the commitment and interest of store owners to welcome customers who have sensory sensitivities,” said Chapman in a phone interview.

The movement has seen great support from dedicated organizations like Autism Canada to neural health, community welfare, and those who struggle with the everyday retail experience.

These groups helped inform the inception of the program in PEI.

“After connecting with the team Autism PEI, we took a look at the retail shopping industry and saw that there was a huge gap in terms of accessibility for people with sensory sensitivities,” said Sobey’s District Operator, PEI, Tammy MacPhee in a press release statement.

One in 66 children is diagnosed with a sensory disability annually, according to polling done by Pollara Strategic Insights. Research has demonstrated that the majority of Canadians support sensory-friendly accommodations, but awareness of the issue is low.

“We decided to change that, and now each week, we’re able to make grocery shopping a little bit easier for families who need a modified shopping experience,” said MacPhee.

Lead image: Cranbrook Safeway Store Manager Kat Yeomans (left) and Stacey Lundin, Second Assistant to Kat, help deliver a sensory sensitive shopping experience to the community on Monday evenings. Photo by Erin Knutson


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