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Retail and Neurodiversity: Why Stores Should Turn Down Volume


An assortment of products in a Lush Cosmetics store, known for creating a multisensory experience.

Jeffrey Greenberg / Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Lieve Douce, professor at the University of Hasselt, has studied sensory overload in commercial environments, studying the use and potential disadvantages of sensory stimulation as a retail strategy. “Companies like Starbucks, Ikea and Lush have gained a substantial competitive advantage through creating a more multisensory customer experience,” she notes. “However, introducing more cues into a store environment can trigger sensory overload, which can negatively affect consumer responses.”

Achieving the right balance is, says Douce, a particular challenge for beauty and perfume stores. Mitigation measures can be put in place to limit the negative impact of sensory triggers on neurodivergent consumers. For perfume, more precise product descriptions may limit the need to try perfumes in-store. Luisa, a perfumer at Avenoir Perfumery, advises explaining the notes in the simplest way possible – in the United States, they may involve avoiding French terms such as fern (one of the olfactory families). For Luisa, who suffers from dyslexia and dyspraxia, the hard-to-understand descriptions are unnecessary. “For neurodivergent people, ambiguity is the worst thing,” she says.

Many retailers are already rethinking their spaces to make them more accessible to neurodivergent people. Estée Lauder has appointed external agencies to audit the stores to explore improvements for greater inclusiveness in the UK. A program called Hidden Disabilities Sunflower Lanyard, launched in the UK and expanded to Canada, US, Australia and New Zealand, supports clients with hidden disabilities, including neurodiversity, by quietly reporting that the wearer may need additional support. Stores provide the cords, which customers can keep, with customizable cards showing sensitivity to smells, light or sound. The program encourages brands to “introduce a convivial hour: dim the lights, reduce the scents, turn off the music” as well as to offer “consultations by reservation, away from the perfume section”, explains Monica Rastogi, British director of Estée Lauder’s corporate cultural relevance. , inclusion and diversity. “Neurodivergent customers often have needs that make the typical consumer experience inappropriate for them, and it is the responsibility of companies like ours to create an environment that is accessible to all. “

Online guides to in-store experiences are also effective, says Tony Lloyd, CEO of the UK’s ADHD Foundation: [or] strong odors. He also echoes calls for quiet hours, noting that those times need to be changed during the week to provide flexibility for neurodivergent clients.

The UK’s National Autistic Society has sought to lead the way with an annual Autism Hour, encouraging stores to limit sensory stimulation while educating staff about autism. The project has stalled during the pandemic, but Tom Purser, head of guidance, volunteering and campaigns, says retailers can help their neurodivergent customers with very simple adjustments. “It can be as easy as… turning down the music or dimming the lights on bright makeup counters. “

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