PICTOU — Something unusual happened on Sunday at the Sobeys store in Pictou.
Lights were dimmed, background music was silenced and anything else that normally makes a noise went quiet.
It followed a decision by the company to partner with Autism Nova Scotia to introduce sensory-friendly shopping to all its grocery stores in Pictou County and throughout the province. The first official sensory event took place on Sunday from 6 to 7 p.m. and will continue every second Sunday during that hour.
It follows what the company considers a successful pilot program in P.E.I. that prompted it to feature the service in stores in both provinces.
Sensory-friendly shopping is designed to address the sensory challenges experienced by many people, including individuals with autism spectrum disorder, by decreasing visual and auditory stimuli in the grocery store environment.
“The grocery store is a central hub of the community. It is important to us that everyone feels welcome at Sobeys,” said Paul MacLeod, vice-president of Atlantic store operations. “We’re really excited to see how customers react; so far the feedback has been really positive.”
Pictou store manager Suzanne Horner said she likes the benefits the service provides.
“I think it’s wonderful anytime we can include people in this way,” she said.
Sindi Lee, one the store’s cashiers, said it’s an important step forward for Sobeys stores.
“For a lot of people with autism, sensory activity is a big thing,” she said. “I think it will be helpful, but we have to wait and see.”
The protocol Sobeys uses will reduce lighting by 50 per cent and silence all sound from PA systems, music, telephones, scanners and registers. It will encourage staff to speak softly, refrain from gathering shopping carts, hang visual aids around popular grocery items such as apples, bread, milk and eggs and position a manager at the front of the store to support customers.
“Not only will this make grocery shopping more accessible for individuals on the autism spectrum, it will benefit all people with sensory challenges,” said Cynthia Carroll, executive director at Autism Nova Scotia. “We know for many, this initiative will have a dramatic impact on their quality of life and we are grateful that Sobeys is implementing this across Nova Scotia.”
Lori Rhyno, director of Sobeys store operations in Northern Nova Scotia, is mother to a child with sensory challenges and took a leadership role in implementing the new program.
“Grocery shopping as a family can be particularly difficult for us, and I understand firsthand how many Sobeys customers may benefit from our sensory-friendly shopping hour,” she said. “This initiative has been a passion for me.”
Rhyno referred to how she responded to a letter Sobeys received from the Grade 3 class of Greenfield Elementary School in Cape Breton encouraging the company to introduce sensory-friendly shopping.
“It warms my heart to know that my child is growing up in a world where friends and classmates better understand special needs and advocate for inclusion.”
From left: Cashier Sindi Lee and Pictou Sobeys store manager Suzanne Horner stand in front of a cash register. (Goodwin photo)