Australian supermarket chain Coles will roll out an autism-friendly shopping experience at nearly 70 stores across the country from today, following a successful trial earlier this year.
The Quiet Hour programme, which reduces noise and distractions to make shopping easier for customers who find heightened sensory environments challenging, was met with widespread praise from customers during a trial at the Ringwood and Balwyn East stores in Melbourne in August.
In a viral Facebook post, Melbourne mum Emily Dive thanked Coles and said she was "fighting back tears" while shopping with her son, describing it as a "milestone".
During Quiet Hour, store lighting is dimmed by 50 per cent, Coles Radio switched off, register and scanner volumes reduced to the lowest level, trolley collection stopped and roll cages removed from the shop floor.
PA announcements are also stopped, except in the case of emergencies, free fruit is offered at customer service, and additional team members will be available to support customers.
From today, Quiet Hour will now be offered at an additional 66 stores, one store in every region across Australia, every Tuesday between 10.30am and 11.30am.
In a statement, Coles accessibility sponsor Peter Sheean said the supermarket wanted a good geographic spread and worked closely with Autism Spectrum Australia to identify locations.
"At Coles, we are always looking at ways we can meet the differing needs of our customers by creating a shopping environment in which our customers and team members feel comfortable," Mr Sheean said.
"We were really pleased to receive a positive response from our customers and team members, who welcomed Quiet Hour and provided feedback on social media. It's fantastic to hear that the changes we made in store during the trial had helped to make a real difference to our customers' shopping experience at Coles.
"Our team members at participating stores are enthusiastic about the initiative and look forward to offering Quiet Hour to their customers who might benefit from the experience."
Linzi Coyle, community engagement and operations manager at Autism Spectrum Australia, said in a statement the organisation was proud to partner with Coles on the programme.
"People on the autism spectrum often have difficulty processing sensory information and can find sounds, light, smell, touch and taste overwhelming," she said.
"For many individuals and families, a simple trip to the shops can be difficult. The trial held at Coles in Ringwood and Balwyn East was a wonderful success and we received a lot of positive feedback from community members about their experience.
"With autism affecting one in 100 Australians, expanding this low-sensory shopping experience to more Coles stores will have a significant improvement on the lives of many children, young people and adults on the spectrum, as well as their family members.
"The modifications to the shopping experience haven't just been about creating low physical and sensory stimulators. Together with Coles, we're achieving a 'no-judgment' shopping space where people on the spectrum and their families can feel comfortable and welcome whilst grocery shopping.
"We encourage anyone who may benefit from the experience to visit a participating Coles store and try sensory-friendly shopping."
Since the trial in August, many customers have called for Quiet Hour to be rolled out more broadly. "I don't think it's just people with autism who would prefer less environmental clutter," Sur Scarfe wrote on Coles' Facebook page.
"Do any shoppers really like loudly blaring radios, loud annoying ads on continuous loops and really noisy beeping ... when they're shopping?
"Why aren't the beeping scanners turned down to a lower volume more of the time? So many things in life are unnecessarily stressful, grocery shopping doesn't have to be one of them."