by Karen Carmichael, Managing Director


This month NIRSC hosted Every Customer Counts to help promote accessible retail. An unforgettable session that I think will hold a special place in my head and heart forever.

This session wasn’t about Places. It was about People. Vulnerable people who like us all shop for everyday food and essentials and who, like most of us, enjoy shopping as a social experience. However, their experience of shopping is very different and actually without some support as they go, it can become fraught and even frightening for them. Those everyday trips we make out to the shops without even thinking about it, can become daunting experiences for those with dementia. And for those with autism, even some simple changes to store entrances, floor layouts or stock availability can be deeply unsettling. Thanks to some candid video content produced and shared by Autism NI and Alzheimer’s Society we could understand this more. We could see through the lens of those with autism and dementia. We watched how the shopping experience can play out, for all involved, parents, carers or friends who are part of these shopping experiences and we chatted about how unnerving it can be for staff trying to be helpful in situations when they lack the skills and training to feed in with the right approach and type of help.

What a moment for all of us to see the shopper experience through the eyes of an autistic person. To listen as they would with a heightened sensitivity to the many noises; cash dispensers, security tags buzzing, music systems playing, tannoy announcements and to see how they interpret colour, logos and all that visual noise that’s packed into any shopper journey. This was no calm walk through the shops. There was an unsettling feeling that at any point sensory overload would be reached. And the reality check that this is what shopping can feel like for people with autism. And the nervousness for the families and carers who watchfully navigate the space as best they can trying to guide their loved one via familiar things, but in spaces that are constantly changing this is simply beyond anyone’s control.

How great it must feel when they come upon a space that is considered with their needs in mind. Imagine how a sensory space would shine like a beacon of light in such a noisy and cluttered environment. Somewhere for your vulnerable shoppers to have a moment to settle themselves away from what might feel like mayhem to them.

We all asked ourselves how might we look at things differently after seeing through this lens. For me, I will lobby for those who can develop quiet sensory spaces to build these solutions into their schemes so that shopping can offer that much needed calmer and more tranquil aspect. Something those with dementia would benefit from every bit as much. I will ask our shopping centre clients to reach out to the many charities willing to offer training to equip staff with skills to support vulnerable shoppers more. And for me as a person, I’ve added another dimension to my understanding of how shoppers with dementia or autism process the shopping experience. I move forward with a new awareness of how we can support the shopper experience for those who interpret the world differently. Big thanks to NIRSC for their event today. To Paul Oakes of the Equality Commission, Lynne Bulled and Pamela Frazer of Alzheimer’s society, Alison Robinson from Autism Initiatives NI and Jennifer Taylor an Autism Parent and Marketing Manager of Richmond Centre. I know today will produce many positive outcomes and change across the retail landscape in NI.