Some of the biggest retail names in Cork City centre have united to provide a sensory-friendly shopping hour.
The stores have all agreed to turn off their in-store music, dim the lights, switch off the till noises, and suspend shelf stacking to provide a quiet, calm and stress-free shopping environment for their first hour of trade every Sunday morning.
Their staff have also received specific customer service training to help meet the needs of those who decide to shop during the quiet hour.
The Cork Business Association (CBA), which is supporting the initiative, said while mainly aimed at those with autism, Down syndrome, Alzheimers, epilepsy, dementia, and people with acquired brain injury, it can also provide a very pleasant shopping experience for many others.
CBA chief executive, Lawrence Owens, described it is a great step towards making the city more family-friendly and inclusive.
“The response from businesses has been really positive and our objective is to grow and expand the provision of sensory-friendly shopping throughout the city,” he said.
“It will be available for the first hour of trade in participating stores on Sunday mornings, and longer where they can. We will monitor it as it rolls out and expand and improve as we go.”
Marks & Spencer, which has pioneered the initiative in its city centre store for about three years, has now been joined by other big retail names including Debenhams, Brown Thomas, Merchants Quay Shopping Centre, Penneys, Vibes & Scribes, Fitzgeralds Menswear, Casey’s Furniture and Diana O’Mahony Jewellers. Participating stores on Opera Lane include H&M, Topshop, Sketchers, and SpecSavers.
M&S general manager, Ray O’Callaghan, said their calm hour has become very important for some of their customers.
Karen Crowley, from Clonakilty, whose eldest son has autism and who is studying in St John’s Central College, said when he was younger, they tended to avoid visiting shops.
“There are families who don’t go outside the door because the thought of visiting a shop is horrendous, especially around Christmas or big events. I would shop online, or very, very local.
“But when he needed a suit for a wedding earlier this year, we drove up to M&S. They had dimmed the lights and the lady we met there couldn’t have done more for us,” she said.
“She gave us loads of time, brought over several choices of shirt with different textures so he could feel them. It was a really pleasant experience. It eliminated all the stress.”
Natalie McGowan, said when her autistic son, Cian Philpott, 21, was younger, he was largely confined to their home because of his aversion to lights and crowds in the shops, “but the M&S initiative has transformed our lives.
“Cian now looks forward to going in, to going to work on a Sunday morning, as he calls it. They allow him to water the plants, and it’s just great.”
Stuart Neilson, who has Asperger syndrome and was part of the team that created the Diploma in Autism Spectrum Studies in UCC, said autism is mostly an invisible disability.
“Autistic people are affected by the sensory environment in public space, but there is no outward symbol that aspects of the environment prevent social inclusion,” he said.
“Loud noises, flashing lights, odour and being jostled in crowds are hard, especially when the noise or other sense is unpredictable.
“We need comprehensive guidelines to make spaces more inclusive, and discreet ways to communicate the potential for disablement to staff.
“We can make public spaces much more accommodating - as shown by the success of initiatives like the autism-friendly town Clonakilty, or the autism-friendly campus in DCU - and find that the interventions to quieten and graduate sensory features are welcome to huge numbers of customers beyond autistic people.”
The CBA has encouraged other businesses to get involved, and will arrange free training for retail staff.