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"Such a small little thing can make such a big difference" - introducing 'Quiet Hour' in Irish supermarkets

The practice is put in place to cater for those with autism or a disability, but can end up catering for so much more, including the business itself.

shutterstock_413041936 Source: Shutterstock/Siriporn Pimpo

THIS WEEK, ASDA, a British supermarket chain, has made the headlines with the news that it will be introducing a weekly ‘quiet hour’ in one of its outlets in Manchester to cater for autistic and disabled shoppers.

The idea is a simple one – for the designated period each Saturday the supermarket will operate with dimmed lighting, no tannoy, no music, and with escalators turned off to create an atmosphere of total silence.

However, the idea isn’t a completely novel one – one Irish supermarket has been operating a similar scheme since late last year. And other supermarkets here are starting to take note.

For Adam Harris, head of autism action group AsIAm, such approaches should really be the norm, not the exception.

“Without doubt there should be more of them,” he says of ‘quiet hours’. “They make sense for all concerned.”

We estimate that autism alone affects in the region of a quarter of a million people in Ireland, between those living with the condition and their extended family.

Serving those people’s needs isn’t just a nice thing to do, it serves the business as well.

Harris makes the point that those with autism are known for their loyalty, so cultivating their custom is a win-win situation for retailers. But there’s more to the idea than just that.

“A quiet hour suits those with autism, but it also suits those who suffer from headaches, someone who’s had a hard day at work, or people who just like peace and quiet. It’s really good for business,” says Harris.

But just how prevalent is the idea of catering to groups such as those with autism or disabilities becoming in Irish supermarkets? TheJournal.ie asked them all in order to find out:

Note: this query was put to Dunnes Stores also, however a reply was not forthcoming

Super Valu

clonak Scally's Super Valu, Clonakilty Source: Google Maps

Without doubt, the Irish retailer is leading the charge when it comes to inclusive initiatives like quiet hours.

Late last year Eugene Scally, owner of Super Valu in Clonakilty, Cork, introduced a two-hour period of full quiet each Tuesday evening. Why did he do so? Simple. Someone asked him to.

“I was asked by a mature student who was studying autism whether I’d be willing to facilitate a quiet store for a night’s shopping,” Scally says. “Well I don’t have to have a meeting to discuss that, why shouldn’t we?”

Now every Tuesday between 7pm and 9pm his store operates with dimmed lights and no tannoy in an atmosphere of silence. And according to Scally it’s being “very well received” indeed.

“You don’t have any idea how such a small little thing can make such a difference to people’s lives,” he says.

Tuesday night is a fine night to have it because we’re not that busy. But I have to say, since word of this got around, things are becoming quite brisk on Tuesdays now.

People are coming from Bantry, from Skibbereen, Dunmanway – it’s gotten big in a way I wouldn’t have expected.

But a quiet hour caters for other groups than just the autistic. Scally has seen his initiative be a hit with epileptics, with people sporting hearing aids, and with the general public too.

“It’s no big deal for us to do this,” he says. “But I’ve had phone calls from the length and breadth of Ireland about this. “

It really sums up what Super Valu is all about – about being local, understanding local people and catering to their needs.

Something of a self-confessed Luddite, Scally doesn’t use the internet, Facebook, Twitter – he doesn’t even have a mobile phone. But that hasn’t stopped him doing something genuinely innovative. And the idea is starting to take off. Now another Super Valu in Greystones, Co Wicklow, is rising to the challenge and scheduling in a quiet hour of its own.

This has really mushroomed,” says Scally. “It’s about making a constructive effort to make life better for the community”.

Tesco

439516532_44263aed56_o Source: Gordon Joly

The British giant has been number two in the supermarket wars for most of the last year – however it has some ideas of its own when it comes to catering for those with conditions like autism. Oddly enough, these practices have been put in place in stores in Co Cork also.

Tesco’s stores in Ballincollig and Douglas support My Canine Companion, a charity which provides service dogs to people with disabilities, particularly autism. What this amounts to is those stores are used for training assistance dogs.

On top of this, the store in Ballincollig is also looking at a potential ‘quiet hour’ – which would see the dimming of lights and turning off of tannoy announcements at a scheduled time of day. However, a Tesco spokesperson explained to us that this ‘trial’ has yet to go live. Assuming it does, might the experience be extended nationwide?

“We’ll keep it under review,” the spokesperson said.

We would always review such matters to see how we can improve the shopping experience for our customers.

Aldi

aldi Aldi, Rathmines, Dublin Source: Google Maps

German retailers Aldi and Lidl are quite unique from Ireland’s other supermarket experiences in that neither of them play music in their stores, while there is no tannoy messaging system – all staff interaction is done via radio.

In this way both retailers are already operating from a relatively ‘autism-friendly’ platform.

When questioned regarding the possibility of a quiet hour being introduced in Aldi stores, a spokesperson told us that the company is “constantly looking at new initiatives that will further improve the shopping experience for customers.”

We do not play music in our stores and the majority of our stores do not have a public address system, helping to keep noise in our stores to a minimum.
Our stores are fully accessible for all customers, with each store following a simple layout ensuring product categories are always easy to find.

Lidl

16779293318_66ec98a97f_o Source: DennisM2

The other big German retailer here is, of course, Lidl. When questioned regarding their own initiatives regarding those with autism or disabilities, a spokesperson said that “a number of initiatives have been or are currently being implemented in order to offer a superior shopping experience for all customers”.

“With no in-store announcements or intercom music, the only noise that should be audible on the Lidl shop floor, other than the atmosphere created by customers and staff, is a till bell,” they said.

In fact Lidl is now phasing out their till bells, to be replaced by an electronic till management system which will only be heard by customers at the till area or by the checkouts.

“The recent introduction of headsets into stores also allows colleagues to communicate with each other to solve customer queries without having to call over an intercom system for a member of management,” the spokesperson added.

Lidl stores are also typically smaller in size when compared to other retailers and thus easier to navigate, which also speeds up the shopping experience. With this in mind, Lidl offers customers a mostly pleasant, quiet place to shop.

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