The power of retail destinations

David Fischel, chief executive of intu talks about the power of retail destinations to change lives for the better

Our centres are vibrant, bustling destinations. But we're dimming their lights and turning down the music for sixty minutes to create a better shopping experience for autistic people.

We have held quiet hours in our centres before and a growing number of retailers have also been getting involved. In 2017, we worked with the National Autistic Society to hold the UK’s first national autism hour and thousands more shops and businesses are joining us to reduce the sensory overload experienced by autistic people.

Bringing together such a scale of retail destinations across the country provides much more than an hour of temporary relief for autistic shoppers. It elevates the national consciousness about a condition impacting 700,000 people in the UK on the autism spectrum and could end up driving real and long-lasting social change.

It is thought that as many as seven million people of working age have a disability. Their spending power, known as the ‘purple pound’, is worth around £249bn to the economy. But according to the Extra Costs Commission, a year-long enquiry which explored the extra costs facing disabled people, three quarters of this seven million have left a shop because of poor customer service relating to their disability and UK retailers risk missing out on as much as £420 million of sales a week as a result.

Further, two thirds of autistic people and their families told the National Autistic Society that they currently avoid going shopping at all. Both shoppers and retailers are losing out.

The National Autistic Society’s innovative and eye-opening virtual reality experience first brought to life what a visit to a shopping centre can feel like for an autistic person as a result of sensory overload. The charity approached us because it appreciated intu would be a like-minded partner with access to 35 million customers nationwide and some of the world’s best known retail brands at big and busy shopping destinations across the UK. More than 13,500 shoppers went on to engage with the VR experience in our centres as a result.

The project was a great example of us working with other experts, in this case a leading charity, to create compelling experiences within our inclusive and accessible spaces, at all hours of the day. And adapting physical and online environments so every shopper can enjoy them is important for all of us working within the retail industry. This could mean more regular autism hours at more shops and businesses across the country but also more staff training and developing customer service to understand customers’ disabilities, whether they are visible or hidden.

This autism hour campaign extends work which we piloted at intu Trafford Centre in 2014 to better support autistic customers, which is now being rolled out to every intu centre. intu is providing frontline staff members with autism-friendly training and autistic customers with access to helpful materials so that they can plan and enjoy their shopping trip. We’re now beginning to work with retailers to roll out the same training to their staff as well.

Read more about autism hour here.

This article was first published in Retail Week.