Yesterday I made the mistake of shopping at Coles for the first time in about two months. There were just a few things I wanted to buy there. I ended up utterly depleted of energy and by the time I made it home, collapsed in a pile. Coles is not friendly to my Asperger’s Syndrome (which is now classified as a form of autism). I remembered that the last time I visited Coles I had a similar meltdown. I resolved to never shop at Coles again, because my equilibrium is just too important to me. And I was inspired to write this blog post.
Coles has received a lot of congratulatory back-slapping recently for rolling out a new scheme called ‘quiet hour’. This is one hour per week in which stores adjust lights and sounds to make the shopping experience more friendly to autistic shoppers. Adjustments include dimming the lights, turning off the music, turning down the volume on scanning machines, and avoiding trolley collection and PA announcements. ‘Quiet Hour’ has been rolled out progressively in Coles stores across Australia since November last year.
I was sent a link to this news by both my sisters, separately. They were excited about the initiative, and this is the kind of news I am interested to hear about so I appreciated being sent the link, but I didn’t rush to look up when my local Coles will be taking it up. Because I don’t shop at Coles anyway*. And I thought, it would be way too inconvenient to schedule my shopping for one hour in the week. I was also frustrated at the tone of the article, which as usual had more references to parents of autistic children than to autistic adults, who incidentally also need to do the shopping**.
I shop at Tom’s, a local independent supermarket, and at Aldi. I considered asking at the local supermarket if they would look into doing something like ‘quiet hour’, and then I realised: going to the local supermarket actually doesn’t stress me out.
I used to hate doing the shopping. Then I stopped going to major supermarkets. I like Aldi because it’s very small, and there isn’t an overwhelming range of products to choose from. Plus, it’s cheap. We were buying everything at the local supermarket, but it got too expensive so we compromised on stock items.
I love going to Tom’s. I buy all our fresh produce there, and most of our shopping is fresh produce. Since being pregnant, I have craved fruit more than usual, and this will sound super weird, but I buy fruit by smell. Whatever fruit smells great as I walk past, I buy. About 80% of what the local supermarket sells is fresh produce, and it is so fresh that it actually smells like fresh produce should.
You can’t smell the fruit and vegetables at Coles. Walking through the produce section (I won’t deign to use the adjective ‘fresh’ to modify ‘produce’ here) there are no more natural smells than there are walking through all the other pre-packaged sections, because yes, most of the produce is pre-packaged. And Aldi is just as bad when it comes to produce, possibly with even more plastic packaging of produce.
They play music at Tom’s, but it isn’t super loud and annoying. Today they were playing Buddy Holly. There isn’t an overwhelming range of products. The lighting is reasonable, suited to a shop, as opposed to Coles blastingly fluorescent lighting which would be better placed in a theatre setting.
So my question for Coles is, instead of having one autism-friendly hour per week, why don’t you be more autism-friendly during the whole week? The only adjustment I can see that would be hard to make is trolley collection and PA announcements. Everything else you can change now – turn down the volume on the registers, turn off the music, dim the lights, and cut out all the other unnecessary noise.
But Coles is not going to do that. Because the sensory overload that makes shopping so stressful for autistic people affects everyone, regardless of their status on the spectrum. It’s the same reason children (not just autistic children) have tantrums in supermarkets – they just aren’t as good at controlling their emotions as adults are. A lot of people enjoy going to farmers’ markets — so much so that there is a comedy genre making fun of people who love going to farmers’ markets — but does anyone find it relaxing to shop at major supermarkets? Maybe a small handful of people.
Does anyone walk through the aisles and think, ‘gee I’m really glad to be listening to Robbie Williams’? Does anyone think, ‘These products could be more well-lit’? Or, ‘I’m glad the cash register is so noisy because hearing these items being scanned at one billion decibles is the only way I can be absolutely sure that each item has been scanned’?
But why would Coles design their stores for maximum sensory overload?
I’ll give you some thinking time to come up with an answer
Thinking time over! It’s to make money, of course! It’s all about bamboozling your senses so that you can’t make rational decisions, and you buy according to the design and layout of the store, rather than according to what you actually need. If you think that’s alarmist and paranoid, watch any episode of The Checkout or The Gruen Transfer. It’s a thing.
Sensory overload is something that we all struggle with at a certain point, it’s just that autistic people get there quicker. The reason this is important is because most of the adjustments we can make in our society to be friendlier and easier for autistic people would, at worst, not be noticed by non-autistic people, and at best suit non-autistic people as well.
So I’m not holding my breath for Coles to change their business model anytime soon. In the meantime I will continue my shopping habits, and I would encourage you to do so too. Not only can shopping be less stressful, or even enjoyable, but you might find your grocery bill reduced***.
Appendix: Other things I hate about Coles
In my horror-filled trip to Coles yesterday, I only wanted a few things but I couldn’t get half of what I needed. They only had rooibos in tea-bags and I couldn’t find the barley, if they even had it. I also bought pumpkin seeds from the dispenser and had an altercation with the checkout chick because I didn’t put a barcode on it, because I couldn’t find the screen that the bag was referring to.
This little vignette demonstrates a few things I hate about Coles
- Things are hard to find
- Systems are designed to make the customer do most of the work
- Everything is processed – I could easily find cereal with barley in it, but Coles isn’t designed for selling raw ingredients; processed food makes them more money
- Everything is over-packaged
My other objections to Coles:
- They are part of the supermarket duopoly
- They screw over farmers
- They are just so expensive!*** (This is related to the duopoly, and to their tactics for making you buy convenience food instead of whole ingredients)
- They create massive waste, and then make other people pay for it while still getting kudos for being charitable
*I want to acknowledge that not everyone in Australia has the privilege of avoiding the major supermarkets. I shopped at Woollies while I lived in Far North Queensland and in Arnhem Land because there were no other options.
**This is common to mainstream news articles about autism, which frequently 1) privilege the voices and experiences of non-autistic people caring for people with autism, and 2) talk about autism as if it is something only children have. This is the criticism of the organisation “Autism Speaks” (they also focus on a ‘cure’), and why you should never ever listen to anything they say, and absolutely refuse to give them your money. PSA: Not all charities are good. /endrant
***I looked it up, and in the month of January we (household of two adults) spent $106.7 a week on groceries. I reckon that’s pretty good!