sensory friendly

You can have a sensory-friendly shopping experience at Toronto grocery stores

In more than 450 stores across the country including the Sobeys Urban Fresh at Bloor and Islington, grocery stores offer hours for sensory-friendly shopping and people are appreciating the experience.

The stores, which are part of the Empire company (Sobeys, IGA, FreshCo), remove sensory stimuli that can overwhelm an individual with sensory sensitivities.

“The grocery store is a central hub of the community. We pride ourselves on creating an inclusive environment that reflects our diverse customer base and the communities where we work,” said Heather DeBlois, director of diversity and inclusion, Sobeys. “It’s important to us that everyone knows they are welcome in our stores. Sensory Friendly Shopping has truly been a grassroots movement driven by our store teams, demonstrating how important it is for retailers to consider how they accommodate a diverse customer base.”

According to Autism BC, “sensory-friendly experiences in the community “are easier for many people who have sensory sensitivity or experience sensory overload to enjoy. The sensory experience is toned down and is less intense. Therefore, it is less likely to be bothersome or overwhelming.”

This type of sensory-friendly experience has happened in the city at a variety of tourist attractions such as the Ontario Science Centre, which has hosted sensory-friendly movie days at the IMAX cinema and other programming since 2018.

Nancy Bent, of the Geneva Centre for Autism said, when the programming was launched, that those with neurodevelopmental disorders like autism face barriers when visiting and attempting to enjoy attractions.

“In collaborating with the Ontario Science Centre to develop adaptive and inclusive programming, we’re breaking down these barriers together, allowing children and their families to more fully enjoy educational and cultural experiences,” said Bent.

At a sensory-friendly film screen the lights are up and the sound is turned down.

Cineplex Odeon also offers sensory-friendly film screens on some Saturday mornings. As does the Landmark Cinemas chain.

This past December, Dufferin Mall offered sensory-friendly hours for people to visit with Santa Claus.

Other attractions such as the Royal Ontario Museum and Ripley’s Aquarium offer sensory friendly guides to visiting but don’t seem to do much beyond that.

The Sobey’s initiative began at one store on Prince Edward Island, and is now expanding across the country.

“After connecting with the team at Autism PEI, we took a look at what was being done in the retail shopping industry and saw that there was a huge gap in terms of accessibility, especially for people with sensory sensitivities, like those with autism or post-concussion syndrome. We decided to change that,” said Tammy MacPhee, Sobeys district operator, Prince Edward Island, via a press release when the program was first introduced. “Now, each week we’re able to make grocery shopping a little bit easier for families who need a modified shopping environment.”

According to Sobeys, the expansion of the program was fuelled by all the positive feedback received. Now, stores across the country are taking the lead in implementing Sensory Friendly Shopping hours in their communities, dimming store lights, and turning off music, PA announcements, and cash register sounds.

According to a press release, across Canada, one in 66 children are diagnosed with a sensory disability each year.

And, it’s not just those with neurodevelopmental disorders who appreciate the experience. A recent post on Toronto Reddit showed that most appreciate the much calmer shopping experience. While others took the opportunity to complain about the obnoxious lighting and blaring noise at a variety of stores.

Maybe we could all benefit from more sensory friendly shopping experiences? Call and ask at your local grocery store if they offer sensory friendly hours, if they don’t, make a request.

Article exclusive to STREETS OF TORONTO