Countdown’s nationwide roll-out of low-sensory “quiet hours” could spark a change across retail, as store owners become more aware of the needs of customers with autism and anxiety issues.
At least two other big retailers are thought to be considering a similar scheme, which sees shops switch off their lights and turn down the music to create a less chaotic shopping experience.
The Warehouse told The Register that it is looking into the initiative while Bunnings is also reportedly considering a similar move.
“We are always looking at options around making our The Warehouse stores as accessible and customer friendly as possible. We consider many options and this is one that we’ll also look at,” a spokesperson for The Warehouse said.
Countdown launched its weekly “quiet hour” on Wednesday after a year-long trial.
At 2.30pm in all its 180 stores – except for four – the bright LED lights were dimmed, in-store radio was turned off, the check-out ‘bleeps’ were lowered while trolley collection and shelf-stocking was kept to a minimum. PA announcements were banned except in emergencies and even some staff were sent off the floor, keeping distractions to a minimum.
Countdown Silverdale and Countdown Northwest will hold their Quiet Hour from 9am to 10am. At this stage Countdown’s two metro city stores, in Auckland and Wellington, will not hold a Quiet Hour.
Countdown Marton staff member, Theo Hogg, who has an autistic child, came up with the idea. It was developed with the input of Autism New Zealand, which provided advice to the retailer about how best to support customers.
Autism New Zealand estimates that around 80,000 (or 1 in 60) Kiwis have Autism. While the traits associated with autism span a wide spectrum, they lead to a different way of seeing the world and interacting with others.
This can make shopping in a supermarket a highly stressful situation, both for the person with autism, as well as for the parents of children with autism. The bright lights and loud sounds of a supermarket can’t be easily filtered out by someone with autism, and can become overwhelmingly stressful.
Autism New Zealand chief executive Dane Dougan says the invisible nature of autism can mean it’s hard to create understanding and awareness of the difficulties people with autism face carrying out day-to-day tasks.
“We’re thrilled that Countdown will be offering Quiet Hour in its stores and it highlights how some small changes can create a more inclusive environment that will impact people significantly.”
It seems retailers are getting more attune to the needs of people with autism. This year has seen rival Australian supermarket giants Cole and Woolworths (Countdown’s owner) roll out weekly low-sensory shopping hours, with the programme in more than 500 supermarkets.
In Christchurch the Palms shopping centre has hosted a “sensory Santa” event since 2015. Children with special needs can meet Santa in a calmer setting, without the usual chaos and queues.
Countdown’s general manager of corporate affairs, safety and sustainability Kiri Hannifin says they wanted to be “welcoming and inclusive” for all Kiwis.
“We know grocery shopping can be an anxiety-inducing experience for some customers and we wanted to help with that. By making a few small changes and creating a Quiet Hour, we hope we can make a big difference.”
But the idea that Countdown would choose 2.30pm to 3.30pm – the frenetic school pick-up ‘witching hour’ where frazzled families converge to feed hangry kids or pick up dinner on the way home – comes as a surprise to some.
Radio New Zealand reported that some parents have expressed concerns online that that time slot would not work for them as there could be a rush of parents with children. However, Countdown said there was no shortage of checkout staff and all can be catered for.
Hannafin says feedback has been “very positive” so far, and it has come from a range of customers.
“Our older customers seem to really enjoy Quiet Hours too, as well as many other Kiwis who actually just find shopping a bit stressful and can now visit at a more peaceful time.”
Bunnings did not respond to The Register’s request for comment before deadline.