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No music, dimmed lights help shoppers during sensory-friendly hours at retailers

VAUGHAN, Ont. — It’s a Tuesday morning at a Walmart just north of Toronto and there’s a sense of calm hanging over the store.
People shop at a Walmart in Vaughan, Ont., during sensory hours, which are select hours that accommodate people who want a quieter shopping experience, on Wednesday, July 2, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christopher Katsarov

VAUGHAN, Ont. — It’s a Tuesday morning at a Walmart just north of Toronto and there’s a sense of calm hanging over the store.

No music is blaring, announcements can’t be heard, and in the sprawling entertainment section the TVs are displaying a static blue screen instead of their usual flashy programming.

The subdued atmosphere is all part of a sensory-friendly experience Walmart Canada recently launched every Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday at its 403 stores in a bid to make shopping trips easier for people who have disabilities, who are sensitive to busied environments, or who are just looking for a quieter retail experience.

"They can spend a bit more time and don't feel as rushed,” explained Lina Nadar, Walmart Canada’s accessibility program manager, as she stood in the aisles of a store in Vaughan, Ont.

Such sensory-friendly experiences are not new, but they’ve been increasingly cropping up in recent years with toy chain Mastermind, grocer Sobeys and movie theatre chain Cineplex Inc. all dabbling in the practice.

Proponents of the model say it's an easy and affordable way to make an often-overlooked portion of customers feel welcome.

"It feels like life is slowly becoming a bit more accessible," Patricia George-Zwicker said of the increase in companies offering sensory-friendly hours.

Without the modifications, shopping can be overwhelming for George-Zwicker, who is based in Halifax and has autism.

George-Zwicker often finds retail lighting too bright, the sound of carts trundling around too loud, and is bothered by water misting in the produce section.

Sobeys addressed many of these issues when it piloted sensory-friendly shopping hours on P.E.I. in 2018 that featured reduced lighting, announcements, department noise and scanner sounds, spokesperson Karen White-Boswell said in an email.

The program has now expanded across the country and includes some stores under the Safeway, Foodland, Thrifty Foods, FreshCo banners.

George-Zwicker compared their first visit to a Sobeys during its sensory-friendly hours to the feeling people have when they get home and change out of their work clothes into comfier attire.

"My body could relax (in the store). I was able to concentrate and take time instead of going in and just grabbing the products I know that I usually get," George-Zwicker recalled.

"I could spend time browsing because I was able to focus and look at the different mustards or whatever."

George-Zwicker and Walmart's Nadar agree that it's not just people with sensory-based disabilities who benefit from such experiences. Those prone to migraines, with visual or hearing impairments or even the elderly all tend to flock to sensory-friendly hours.

While many shoppers weren’t aware of Walmart Canada's program when The Canadian Press recently visited the Vaughan location, some said they’d noticed how much quieter the store was and liked the more restrained atmosphere. One man even gave it a thumbs up, adding he’d be happy if the chain never switched its music back on again.

Walmart Canada's decision to launch sensory-friendly hours evolved over the last year.

In early 2023, the chain started taking measures at U.S. stores to create a less stimulating environment for a couple of hours each Saturday. By back-to-school season that year, TV screens were being changed to static images, the radio was turned off and lights were lowered, where possible.

Then, in November, Walmart took the experience even further, launching it every day between 8 and 10 a.m. local time at all U.S. and Puerto Rico stores.

To prepare Walmart Canada to join the mix, Nadar said the company consulted with Sensory Friendly Solutions, a business helping organizations become more inclusive.

"They humbled us into making us realize this is a journey and we're just starting," said Nadar.

During its sensory-friendly shopping hours at the Vaughan location, every scan of an item by cashiers still produced a beep and the store’s lights weren’t dimmed — a hallmark of other store’s sensory-friendly experiences.

The chain hopes to find a way to reduce the lighting eventually but says tackling the brightness might have to wait for renovations.

When Cineplex started offering a similar experience at 12 theatres in February 2015, it also had to consider the brightness in auditoriums.

Spokeswoman Michelle Saba said sensory-friendly screenings are now held up to 10 times a year at 36 theatres with a "lights up/volume down" atmosphere.

The screenings are programmed for the morning, when fewer guests are likely around to cause a ruckus and noises from arcade games in the lobby can be minimized. A separate auditorium is also designated as a quiet area for guests, if they need a break from their screening.

Companies that have offered sensory-friendly experiences already show that accessibility isn't as complicated as some imagine because dimming lights or minimizing sound carries a low cost, if any, said George-Zwicker, who feels less like "a fish out of water" when shopping during the designated hours.

"I've kind of been fighting for a place in society my entire life, so it's very nice to feel welcomed and seen in places."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 8, 2024.

Companies in this story: (TSX:CGX, TSX:EMP.A)

Tara Deschamps, The Canadian Press