The Sobeys on St. Anne's Road will become the first grocery store in Manitoba to hold weekly sensory-friendly shopping, which an expert says would directly benefit customers with sensory issues such as autism.
"Many people with autism want to live independently and be able to contribute to the overall family environment," said Cheryl Glazebrook, an autism expert at the University of Manitoba.
"Grocery shopping is a great opportunity to be out in the community and to be independent with that aspect of their life. But there are many things in our environment that can make that challenging."
Glazebrook said that things such as bright fluorescent lights and loud noises affect people with sensory issues the way mosquitos buzzing around, or a blister on someone's foot, would irritate and distract a person without those issues.
"Those things can become all consuming for your attention," Glazebrook said. "By creating an environment that is more sensory-friendly, that can help people focus on things they want to do while they're shopping instead of paying attention to that extra sensory information."
Essentially, a sensory-friendly shopping environment reduces any unnecessary lights and sounds that could negatively affect customers, while still maintaining a safe shopping environment. According to Sobeys spokeswoman Florence Chapman, this includes dimming half the lights, as well as reducing or muting all noise coming from barcode scanners, music, P.A. announcements, deli machines and shopping cart collection.
Chapman said the decision to implement sensory-friendly shopping is in the hands of respective store managers, such as St. Anne's store manager Jordan Firth.
Firth told the Free Press that he came up with the idea because he has family members who are affected by sensory issues, such as his son, who has trouble focusing in loud environments.
"I have first-hand experience, knowing the challenges these individuals can have going through day-to-day life," Firth said. "As soon as I saw some of the Sobeys stores out East had begun to offer this, I thought, 'What a fantastic idea.'
"It's such a simple thing to reduce the lighting, turn off the music, really try to reduce the sound. It makes a world of difference for people with these challenges."
Firth said Sobeys stores in several other provinces "did a great job working out the kinks," which makes the process for the St. Anne's store easier to implement.
Chapman said stores throughout the Atlantic provinces, Ontario, B.C., Alberta and now Manitoba have incorporated regular sensory-friendly shopping hours within the past 10 months.
Chapman said the movement started in Prince Edward Island in October 2018, when an autism group in Summerside — a community 60 kilometres west of Charlottetown — approached its local store about the concept.
"The suggestion was made that this may be a way to provide an inclusive shopping experience for the community," she said.
"It was very much grassroots, store-led, that then got such great engagement from both our internal store operators and managers, and the community, that it just started to build and unfold very quickly."
Chapman said the grocery chain, owned by Nova Scotia-based Empire Company Limited, is welcoming any future expansion.
The Sobeys on St. Anne's, located in a plaza near Bishop Grandin Boulevard, will have its first sensory-friendly shopping hours from 6-8 p.m Thursday. Firth said those are the scheduled weekly hours moving forward.