The ShopRite in Brookhaven is a grocery shopper’s delight. The store is clean, bright, and spacious with the make-you-hungry smells wafting from the bakery and prepared foods. Manager Paul Kourtis has been in the grocery business for 19 years and knows the importance of aesthetics.
He also knows none of it matters if the customer has a poor experience, especially at check-out., which is why, when he overheard his fiancé talking about her friend, Kristin Jackowski’s issue at checkout at Target with her daughter and her subsequent petition, he thought, “What’s the big deal?”
Consider Kourtis a problem solver. During our short walk from his office to the sensory-friendly checkout lane he set up, the manager answered three questions from employees and shoppers.
Consider Jackowski, along with parents in Delaware County, grateful.
During a late August trip to a Plymouth Meeting Target store with her three children, Jackowski’s daughter NavyAnna, a six year-old on the autism spectrum and has audio-processing disorder and ADHD, had a breakdown in the checkout aisle.
While it has happened before, and Jackowski is used to the under-the-breath comments and stares, she was especially disheartened by the rude cashier. She started a petition on change.org to encourage large retailers, specifically Target, to add sensory-friendly checkout lanes in their retail store.
What Target and many large retailers have yet to implement, Kourtis did in two days after immediate approval from Patrick J. Burns, president and CEO of Burns’ Family Neighborhood Markets. Kourtis followed suggestions by Jackowski which included swapping out candy for Play-Doh, puzzles, games, and squeeze toys.
“It caught fire from there. The customers love it and they say it’s a great idea,” Kortis said.
“We are always looking for ways to improve and make it a priority to listen to our customers and to do whatever we can to accommodate their needs. We since expanded the concept to two other supermarket locations that opened this year and are implementing at our other stores as well. We hope that it makes a positive impact and improves the overall shopping experience for our customers,” added Burns.
There are also sensory friendly lanes at the Fresh Grocer at 69th Street in Upper Darby and at the Fresh Grocer in the Grays Ferry section of Philadelphia. Burns plans to roll the concept out to all nine of his stores.
“It was such an amazing, surreal feeling that this came to life. We had a great experience when we visited and my daughter had no tears. It was really special,” said Jackowski. “They are changing lives, the Burns Family and Paul and the employees. They are doing something great for their customers and community. It restores your faith in humanity that there is a future for my kid and it’s not so bleak; someone will understand her,” said Jackowski.
“The whole philosophy is to give the customer a positive experience,” Kourtis said, “Someone with a child with special needs, specifically autism, you don’t remember anything during the shopping trip except the bad checkout and how crazy it was. We wanted to continue the flow with the checkout and make sure you have a positive experience from the second you walk in the store to the second you check out. It’s not just for special needs kids, it’s for children in general,” commented Kourtis.
A new government survey of parents suggests that one in 45 children, ages three through 17, has been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). This is notably higher than the official government estimate of one in 68 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Sensory processing disorder is a condition in which the brain has trouble receiving and responding to information that comes in through the senses. It may affect one sense, like hearing, touch, or taste, or it may affect multiple senses.
“What they are doing by creating a sensory-friendly lane is removing the sensory pieces so the child isn’t having an over-arousal or over-reaction. It is like the parody of someone spraying cologne in your face when you go to the mall, that idea of the sensory overload. It’s almost the same idea. ShopRite is really thinking about the local community and the needs of the community,” said Christopher J. Polzer, M.Ed., principal/dupervisor of Special Education at Delaware County Intermediate Unit.