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Supermarkets plan 'quiet hours' for autistic and sensory-sensitive shoppers

07:17 05/12/2022

Some Belgian supermarkets are introducing "quiet hours" during which lights are dimmed and music is turned off, hoping to improve the shopping experience for autistic or sensory-sensitivity people.

Such "quiet hours" or "low stimulation times" are becoming increasingly common in a variety of sectors, including theme parks and fairgrounds.

Now Delhaize and Carrefour are introducing the measure. Since 29 November, Carrefour is offering customers two hours of silence every day between 14.00 and 16.00, with lights dimmed, the soundtrack switched off and tannoy announcements muted.

“The aim is to create a calm atmosphere,” the grocery chain said in a press release.

“As many as 100,000 people in Belgium are highly sensitive to crowds and noise. The aim is to enable these people and people with autism spectrum disorder to do their shopping in peace and quiet.”

In-store posters will inform customers of the new practice, which will be implemented in all Carrefour Hyper and Market shops under its own management, with franchise partners free to apply the measure as they see fit.

Belgium’s Pukkelpop and the Gentse Feestdag (Ghent festivities) also offer visitors a "quiet room" to escape overstimulating environments from time to time, and chain stores Decathlon and Jumbo host quiet hours.

For autism spectrum disorder (ASD) people “just having to find your way around a shop and having contact with others is intense enough”, Sofie Deparcq of the Flemish Autism Association told De Standaard.

“When other stimuli are taken away, it's a big help for them.”

Not everyone with ASD necessarily struggles with sensory issues, and not everyone who struggles with sensory issues has ASD, but Deparcq explained that for many people, “stimuli comes in all at once: light, colours, sound. That quickly becomes overpowering. Then when you also have to shop, on top of that...”

Deparcq said that quiet hour initiatives demonstrate that people are paying attention to the issue. “And that's a good thing,” she said.

“Also for many other people, by the way. We sometimes call people with ASD the canaries of society. If they suffer from too many stimuli, other people will follow. And we live in a time of lots of stimuli, with more and more people suffering, too.”

Delhaize has also announced that some of its stores will introduce quiet hours as part of a pilot programme, in consultation with associations such as disabled parking campaign group GAMP.

“The stimulation you receive as a customer during a shopping trip cannot be underestimated,” said Cinzia Agoni, spokeswoman for GAMP.

“For people with ASD, these are perceived as very disruptive and they make shopping very difficult for them which, by extension, leads to social exclusion. We are therefore extremely pleased with this test by Delhaize because they are thus giving these individuals the opportunity to do a very normal activity in a comfortable way.”

Lidl, Aldi and Colruyt have "no plans" for designated quiet hours, but mainly because they already have similar measures in place.

A Colruyt spokesperson pointed out that its stores already do not play music and strive for quiet shopping for all customers.

It has also included “a number of tools for efficient shopping: in our app, you can compile a shopping list in advance, putting the products in the order according to where they are in the shop”.

This lets customers get in and out as quickly and efficiently as possible, limiting their time in the environment.

Lidl, too, does not play music and already uses reduced lighting, along with offering a “busy barometer” to let customers know in advance how busy a store is.

Aldi also did away with music some time ago.

Written by Helen Lyons