The term neurodiversity started among awareness campaigns for Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). However, it now goes beyond autism to encompass a broader field of neurological conditions such as ADHD, dyslexia, Tourette’s syndrome, Alzheimer’s disease and other neurological differences. The neurodiversity movement aims to recognise and include people who aren’t neurotypical, and to normalise the broader range of atypical forms of neurodiversity that have previously been stigmatised.
An estimated 10 per cent of the British population are neurodivergent, with one in 100 Britons estimated to be on the spectrum. This figure rises to one in 70 when estimating the Australian autistic population. These numbers, while speculative, are growing as diagnosis criteria expands and sampling methods improve. To put these numbers into perspective, autism is more prevalent than deafness and blindness. As brands and retailers strive to be more inclusive, interventions for the neurodivergent should be given greater priority than currently reflected in retail design.
Brands are uniquely positioned to influence public understanding of social causes, and this includes neurodiversity. Retail design has a moral duty to provide enjoyable shopping experiences for these people, who are too often forgotten.
The considerations for neurodivergent customers can be vast, reflecting human variance. Some people need very particular consideration, such as customers with autism who are hypersensitive to the sensory environment and unable to participate in retail in a typical fashion. Then there are the customers who might be able to participate in stores typically, but unbeknownst to everyone around them, experience discomfort.
As customers, we find ourselves on the cusp of significant change in the ways we engage with brands and products, particularly given recent adaptations due to Covid-19. As we adapt, we are actively shaping the future, and this is the perfect opportunity for retail to become more inclusive of neurodiversity.
Turning traditional retail on its head
Take personal shopping, for example. It’s seen as a premium service, but it can also be an inclusive service when used in a way that allows people to shop by appointment in a quieter, more stable environment. A tailored shopping experience is usually about a selective product presentation, but it should also be about selective sensory stimulants.
The inevitable emergence of home shopping should also be focused on neurodiversity and being as inclusive as possible. A desirable retail service is now seen by many as one conveniently brought to the home, particularly after a global pandemic. Home shopping services and experiences will continue to develop and improve. The brands and products available to view at home will also expand. Many who have avoided shopping due to sensory needs can now have a retail service come to them in a safe environment of their choosing. All that is involved is the education of staff.
Designing stores for neurodivergent customers could lead to unforeseen retail innovations and richer store experiences for everyone. As an example, take the dedicated ‘quieter hours’ we are seeing from many retailers. Stimulants such as lights, scents and audio have long been viewed as powerful commercial tools within store environments, yet low-stimulant spaces are preferable to many customers. It’s easy to see how a store could become a peaceful or calming refuge in a time when many people stare at digital screens for most of their waking hours. Inclusive design often drives innovation, often with unforeseen benefits for everyone.
Not so long ago, it was frictionless retail that was at the forefront of strategy; we had to have things quickly. Time and convenience were the pillars of what we thought customers wanted and needed. We now find ourselves in a pandemic world where our priorities and expectations for a retail experience have shifted or expanded. Convenience still has its place in segments of retail, but we also find an appetite for sustainability, personalisation, social interaction, entertainment, inclusion and diversity.
As brands’ influence on society grows, physical retail has an opportunity to drive positive change through innovative in-store experiences and considering neurodiversity in retail will be a huge step towards a more conscious, inclusive and diverse society.