Holiday shopping is an important tradition for retailers and families alike. This year, retailers began reaching out to families with members on the autism spectrum, creating events that made a potentially overwhelming experience friendly to those more sensitive to sensory inputs.
Children that fall on the autism spectrum are a notable and growing population. In the United States, research estimates that about one in 68 children (roughly 1 million children) have been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. Diagnoses in the US are on the rise, with a report from 2000 estimating the prevalence at 1 in 150.
In the UK, where about 700,000 people fall on the autism spectrum, Toys R Us stores have hosted quiet shopping events since 2014. This year, a “quiet hour” was rolled out across UK locations. A Toys R Us in Lafayette, Louisiana also hosted the company’s first quiet hour across the Atlantic this year.
“Making slight adjustments to stores and creating a ‘quiet’ shopping period allows children and young adults to experience the fun in a toy shop regardless of their disability,” a Toys R Us marketing director told the Manchester Evening News. “We understand toys are more personal to many additional needs individuals, so being able to relax and choose something special themselves and enjoy the facilities and content of the store, the same as other children can do without concerns, will help in making their Christmas truly magical.”
In Lancaster, Pennsylvania, a Target held a special two-hour quiet shopping event in December designed for families on the autism spectrum. The event took place two hours before the store typically opened and featured dimmed lights, no music, and reduced store staff to create a sensory-friendly environment.
“We are committed to creating an environment where our team members and guests feel welcome, valued and respected,” a Target spokesperson told The Mighty, a website dedicated to individuals with disabilities. “As part of that commitment, we empower our store leaders to make decisions that help meet the needs of the guests they serve.”
Other retailers that featured sensory-friendly shopping events this year included a Costco in East Peoria, Illinois and a J. C. Penny in Dallas. Chuck E. Cheese’s also hosts “Sensory Sensitive Sundays” at several locations nationwide, with reduced noise and dimmed lighting. Although both Costco and Target have each stated they do not plan to roll out the initiative company-wide, the positive reactions from both shoppers and the media make it likely that events will repeat in the future.
Industries from retail to advertising are beginning to recognize the sizable population of individuals that live with disabilities, taking initial steps toward inclusion and representation in events as well as marketing campaigns or TV shows. In the United States, nearly one in five adults, or 53 million people, have a disability, a number that is only expected to grow. Events like sensory-friendly shopping not only spur goodwill and positive relations among communities, they also open retail possibilities to a sector of consumers that might otherwise avoid the in-store shopping experience.
For more, see “(Dis)ability advertising (#39)” in our Future 100 trend report.