By Amy. C Sousa, Chief Executive Officer, The Guild for Human Services

‘Tis the season. Ornaments and garlands adorn homes and communities, bringing feelings of warmth and nostalgia to many. Unfortunately, it’s also the season for sensory extremes, particularly in shopping experiences. A trip to the store means blinking lights, crowded aisles, kaleidoscopic décor, and a cacophony of blaring music, overhead pages, and muttering crowds. It’s no wonder that 47 percent of holiday shoppers will buy all or most of their gifts from the comfort of their electronic devices.

Even so, holiday shoppers will line up at Walmart stores to make purchases galore. And this year, people who prefer a less stimulating environment may show up more readily during the store’s new “sensory-friendly” hours that took effect on November 10. 

Walmart recently announced efforts to create calmer shopping experiences, including “setting in-store TV walls to a static image, turning off the radio, and lowering the store lights.” Walmart anticipates that these sensory-friendly hours will be “especially beneficial to neurodiverse individuals – both customers and employees – with sensory disabilities.”

The move made national news and was hailed as a victory for people with disabilities. But inclusion is more than social advocacy; it’s also a good business strategy.

As CNN reports, “Walmart is not only building some goodwill with its shoppers, but these changes could also bring more shoppers into its stores and keep them shopping there longer.” This is only the latest in customer-centric store practices that encourage loyalty to the Walmart brand. But can goodwill translate into financial results?

The pandemic transformed online shopping “from novelty to normality,” with 43 percent growth from 2019 to 2020, according to Time Magazine. With such a meteoric gain in internet sales and associated decline of brick-and-mortar shopping, it’s hard to imagine why Walmart would choose to focus on in-person retail experiences. Yet , Walmart’s decades of financial dominance have led industry leaders to take note.

According to Forbes, “A significant number of consumers have always preferred to see, touch, and feel products before purchasing them.” After a long duration of social distancing, there is reason to anticipate a market rebound for stores with a physical presence. In fact, Massachusetts-based TJX’s HomeGoods recently discontinued online retail services in favor of brick-and-mortar stores.

Online sales once eliminated time and transportation barriers for purchases; however, a surge in returns from online purchases reaching 21 percent negates some of those benefits. This uptick also impacts online retailers’ bottom line. The National Retail Federation reports that for every $1B in sales, the average retailer incurs $166M in merchandise returns, which is five percent greater than storefront purchases. There is a financial incentive to quell this trend.

As companies look to improve their in-person shopping experience, accommodating shoppers with sensory disabilities will have implications for populations whom the traditional retail setting has long underserved. For many, heightened sensory cues in stores increase the risk of sensory overload, deterring them from shopping altogether. Those with autism or sensory processing difficulties are especially susceptible to becoming overstimulated. Research shows that 64% of all people with autism avoid going to stores. Given that over 5 million adults and 1 in 36 children have autism, companies risk missing a huge segment of the population when they fail to create sensory-friendly hours for shoppers.

With consumer spending forecasted to surpass pre-pandemic levels, now is the time to implement universal design features in retail to capitalize on a wider consumer base and pull back on the costs of returns.

The seven key principles of universal design could invite a broader audience to shop more comfortably. Generally, when businesses consider these design factors, they apply to building design and navigation. Such accessibility has positive impacts for most shoppers. For example, many use automatic doors or wide ramps when carrying heavy bags, explain Kristin Cerutti and Meredith Seeds in Retail Touchpoints. Cerutti and Seeds note, “This is our hope for neurodiverse design — we want to create spaces that cater to the needs of the neurodiverse group but also benefit the everyday shopper.”

Walmart’s implementation of universal design principles through its addition of sensory-friendly hours marks an important moment in a consumer landscape that is increasingly client-centric. Other major retailers would do well to follow suit. Accommodating neurodiverse shoppers will likely be good for the bottom line, but more importantly, it’s the right thing to do.