Store of the Future   //   November 28, 2023

Why grocers are experimenting with sensory-friendly shopping experiences

Dimmer lights, no music and no overhead announcements. These are just some of the features some grocers are beginning to offer for shoppers who get overstimulated in stores. 

Walmart said it is adding sensory-friendly hours every day from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. local time at all of its stores in the U.S. and Puerto Rico. Portland, Oregon grocery chain New Seasons Market announced the launch of sensory-friendly shopping hours earlier this month, which will occur once a week at 18 out of 19 locations. Meanwhile, Target offered sensory-friendly holiday shopping hours from 7 a.m. to 8 a.m. at two of its Ohio stores earlier this month.

Grocers are beginning to test out sensory-friendly shopping hours in an attempt to offer a more inclusive in-store experience. Retailers have been experimenting with ways to make in-store shopping more pleasant for shoppers, either by remodeling stores or updating the store layout. Rebekah Kondrat, founder of Kondrat Retail, said that offering sensory-friendly hours could just be another way retailers are working to improve their stores.

“Every brand should want their customers to feel like they’re in a safe place,” Kondrat said. “But I think there were also business benefits that were perhaps unexpected by doing by making hours just for a specific need group.”

Sensory processing disabilities can be common among people with ADHD, dyslexia, post-traumatic stress disorder and autism, among other conditions. This means that a significant portion of the population might not find traditional conditions at grocery stores — such as bright lights, blaring music and constant announcements on overhead speakers — to be an ideal place to be for a long period of time. By having sensory-friendly hours in store, grocers could gain access to a new segment of consumers that they otherwise would not have captured. 

Mary Lou Gardner, associate partner for CPG, retail and logistics at Infosys Consulting, said that parents of children with sensory sensitivities could also stay in the store longer when they’re not in a rush to leave. “It’s hard for them to bring their children with them if they’re shopping so it’s creating a better experience for those shoppers,” Gardner said. “When you’re relaxed when you’re shopping, you spend more money. If you increase the dwell time, you increase the market basket.”

Walmart initially tested sensory-friendly hours in July and August earlier this year during the back-to-school shopping season. But at that time, Walmart only offered it on Saturdays in some stores, instead of every day. Walmart said it expanded the sensory-friendly experience to all stores after receiving “overwhelmingly positive” feedback from the pilot program.  

Each retailer appears to have their own version of what it means to offer sensory-friendly hours. As part of the offering, New Seasons Market also plans to lower the volume of employees’ walkie-talkies. Target, on the other hand, said it will limit foot traffic in stores.

New Seasons Market said that its sensory-friendly hour offering aligns with its core values. “New Seasons Market has always prioritized our customers’ needs and desires, and we believe that everyone should feel comfortable while shopping with us,” Nikotris Perkins, senior director of diversity, equity and inclusion at New Seasons Market, said in the announcement. “The introduction of Sensory Friendly Hour demonstrates our desire to create inclusive spaces where more members of our community can shop at their own pace without being overwhelmed by sensory stimuli.”

Rachel Dalton, head of retail insights at Kantar, said that one of the challenges that retailers could encounter in this would be having enough workers to take on these early morning shifts. In-store associates would also have to receive training on what to do during these designated hours. 

Still, with large players like Walmart making sensory-friendly hours the norm, Dalton said that this could inspire other retailers to follow suit. Across the ocean in the U.K., Aldi has already begun testing sensory-friendly hours at nearly 100 stores throughout Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire, Lincolnshire and Yorkshire. If the trial is deemed a success, Aldi said that it will roll out the shopping experience in all of its stores in the U.K.

“I could see it becoming something that more retailers implement in their store,” she said. “I bet you will bring in more traffic. You’ll bring in, potentially, even new customers who know that they can have kind of a peaceful shopping experience.”