A diet for the senses: Countdown's low-sensory hour

  • News
  • October 16, 2018
  • Jai Breitnauer
A diet for the senses: Countdown's low-sensory hour

In April this year, Countdown introduced a 'Quiet Hour' at its Marton outlet for people with sensory processing issues such as Autism Spectrum Disorder. Here's how it's going so far.

It can be hard for average, or ‘neurotypical’ people to understand, but walking into a retail outlet for people with sensory issues, such as Autism Spectrum Disorder, can be a hugely traumatic experience. While science has helped us amp up the sensory shopping experience with lighting, sound and even smell geared toward increasing purchasing behaviour, this onslaught of the senses can be physically and emotionally disabling for many, preventing them from even entering a store.

Countdown are perhaps the first mainstream retailer in New Zealand to recognise this issue, and adapt their environment to cater for all types of customer. The Marton store introduced a ‘quiet hour’ back in April to nationwide acclaim, with stores in Christchurch and Auckland following suit. In September they even won a Geneva Healthcare Award for their efforts. 

“We’d heard of dedicated low-sensory shopping times overseas, and one of our Countdown Marton team members, who has first-hand experience as the parent of an autistic child, suggested a ‘quiet hour’ for Autism Awareness Week,” said Kirsten Dinnan from the Marton store, when she collected the award. 

“We’ve received overwhelmingly positive feedback, so much so that Countdown Marton has permanently set aside a quiet hour every week. It’s amazing to know that we can make such a difference to some of our customers.”

Held on Wednesdays between 3pm – 4pm, participating stores dim the lights, turn off music and don’t engage in shelf stacking or other activities that involve movement on the shop floor. It’s proved popular with parents of autistic children, for whom the weekly shop could be very complex, and also for autistic adults who might find the process of food shopping rather overwhelming. 

“I was using New World’s Click and Collect service, but I’d often forget to add essential items and you have to go into the store to pick up the shopping anyway,” says Annie Smithson* from Christchurch. “I was diagnosed with ASD as a teenager, but I went to university and I now run my own graphic design business from home. I’m able to control most aspects of my environment but going to the shops or to the doctor and dentist are areas I struggle with.”

Many people I spoke to said that while they fully supported the low sensory hour, the times available, and the location of current participating stores, made it inaccessible for them.

“It would be awesome if they could have a low sensory hour on the weekends, not just for those on the spectrum but for anyone who might find it difficult to go to the supermarket,” says Alice Dunn. “I hope more stores take up this initiative.”

*Name changed

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