The silly season, as it has come to be affectionately known, is a time when we are expected to be socially available, navigate crowded stores and attempt to find the perfect gifts for loved ones. We reflect on the year that was, take some time out to recalibrate and think about the year to come. For the estimated 20 per cent of the Australian population who identify as neurodistinct, however, Christmas is one mighty sensory roller-coaster during which cognitive reserves are drained. While
While we are all diverse by nature, neurodistinct customers are sensory affected in ways that differ from the majority. Who is included in this cohort? Neurodistinct cognitive profiles include: dyslexia (language processing differences); dyscalculia (numerical processing differences); dyspraxia (developmental co-ordination differences); autism spectrum (social, communication, and processing differences); ADHD (differences affecting planning, focus, and task execution); and Tourette syndrome (a nervous system condition involving repetitive movements and/or unwanted sounds). Other forms of neurological conditions may also affect a customer’s cognitive processing, such as acquired brain injuries and age-related conditions such as dementia. The neurodiverse segment of the population is hidden, with challenges and disabilities that are not visible and often not disclosed. As more information comes to light regarding neuro differences, however, there is greater focus on how society can create more accessible experiences in the workplace and the marketplace. Customer insights By design, Christmas is an explosion of sensory stimuli designed to fire all at once: colour, sparkle, lights, crowds, queues, music, extended product lines, changes to store layouts and pricing. Many neurodistinct customers’ senses become overwhelmed, hence they prefer to shop at quieter, less crowded times and without the need to respond to small talk from store assistants. Less is more for this cohort when it comes to festive decorations. Flashing reindeer, flashing lights and the ‘ho ho hoing’ of an overzealous Santa tend to be a deterrent, rather than inspiring Christmas cheer. As humans, we are all neurologically unique – no two people see the world in exactly the same way; therefore, no two neurodistinct people experience their environment in the same way either. Jay is autistic and finds “safety in Christmas music and films, as these signal familiar processes and stories and help regulate the sensory chaos going on around me during this time of year”. He describes the repetitive nature of Christmas tunes in store as a safe and expected part of the seasonal period. Jessica, on the other hand, is also autistic and says “the busy decorations just look like mess to me. I wear headphones or earbuds to cancel out the noise and I stay away from crowded sections or brightly lit up parts of the store.” Will has ADHD and is dyslexic. He “hates surprise gifts and the expectation that I am supposed to know what to buy for everyone”. Trying to find the perfect gift causes him increased anxiety. “What if I get it wrong? What do I need to return gifts – the future returns process only adds to my to-do list.” The every channel experience Online channels offer a safe experience where shoppers are in the comfort of their own spaces, can avoid the crowds and browse without pressure. However, the in-store experience has an important role to play as part of the customer journey for people who have specific and unique sensory requirements. There is high motivation for neurodiverse customers to visit a bricks-and-mortar store to ensure their purchase is fit for purpose. Examples include viewing the depth of a colour palette and feeling the texture of a fabric or the weight of a writing instrument. Creating more accessible customer experiences While this list is not exhaustive, here are a few ways to create more inclusive experiences for customers of all neurotypes: Familiar store layout and clear signposting: Neurodistinct customers return to stores where the layout is familiar. Knowing store entry and exit points is a must, especially during busy periods. Many neurodivergent customers will have researched the exits and entry points in advance, as well as where the registers are positioned. Making changes to familiar layouts without adequate signposting causes bottlenecks in the customer journey. Communicating major store layout changes might alleviate some confusion for customers who have planned for a familiar store route but find things have changed when they get there.Designated sensory regulation spaces for large stores and shopping centres: Providing clearly signposted, uncluttered space for people to regulate themselves is a welcome accommodation, especially during peak shopping periods, when sensory overload is predictable. These spaces allow the customers to bring themselves down from a heightened state away from the noise and business of the shopping area. They could be the difference between continuing to shop or abandoning a visit altogether.An easy returns process: An easy, no fuss returns process creates accessibility by avoiding lengthy returns instructions, paperwork, long queues at the post office and the need to explain the reason for a return to a store assistant. Neurodistinct customers often cite The Iconic as offering one of the easiest returns processes, resulting in repeat purchases and loyalty.Accessible change rooms: There is an intersection between gender diversity and neurodiversity. Offering gender-neutral fitting rooms as an alternative to traditional male/female change rooms is welcoming to gender-diverse customers. Furthermore, change rooms that are clear of clutter, such as overstock and empty boxes, welcome the shopper into a cleaner sensory space where they can focus on their purchase rather than navigating clutter and reacting to the additional sensory input.Diverse employee representation: Brands that hire employees who are an authentic representation of all forms of human diversity will attract customers who wish to shop without fear of judgement in an inclusive environment. While there’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to inclusive shopping experiences, brands that invest in understanding the needs of their physically and neurologically diverse customers will create more accessible experiences that will ultimately drive higher customer engagement.