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Friday interview | The woman changing our shopping environments to make them accessible for all

When Katherine Vero's mum was diagnosed with dementia in 2005, their previously enjoyable shopping trips became increasingly stressful. Determined to make a difference, she founded Slow Shopping...

Written by High Life North
Published 27.12.2019

By Laura Kingston

Many of us take the ease of shopping for granted, popping to Sainsbury’s after work or spending a Saturday at Intu Eldon Square. But for a lot of people, shopping environments can be extremely stressful and we don’t just mean people with either visible or invisible disabilities. The elderly, those who live with anxiety, those who have communication challenges or even just people who are going through a difficult period in their lives can all find the task of shopping overwhelming at times.

The thing is, shopping can be a very rewarding environment too, offering a safe, warm space and social interaction with staff and other customers which might be some people’s only human interaction that week. We met Katherine Vero in John Lewis Newcastle to find out more about the work she is doing to help improve shopping environments to make them accessible for everyone. 

What is Slow Shopping?

Slow Shopping provides dedicated times in the week when stores, art galleries, banks, cafes etc can offer more time and support to help people do their shopping. Customers are not identified as having additional needs – anybody can be shopping at that time, but measures are taken by the store to ensure that the environment is calmer and staff are trained to be aware that customers may need their support. Many carers, friends and family can also find shopping daunting and so can relax knowing that additional support is available to them during these dedicated times. 

What led you to set up Slow Shopping?

I was inspired by my mum. She loved to go shopping and was great at finding bargains in the sales. When she became ill with dementia, I liked to take her out to recreate old experiences such as shopping for a winter coat or stopping for a tea break in a cafe. I was trying to hold on to something of our old relationship, doing ordinary things with her but dementia slowly started to take that away from us as our shopping trips became increasingly stressful for both of us. The experience of shopping changed as mum became increasingly separated from the ‘real’ world. One day we arrived at the checkout and mum went to use her debit card in the card reader and she couldn’t recall the number. I looked to the assistant for reassurance while talking to mum about letting me use my card. Mum insisted that the assistant could see the number and knew what to do. The checkout assistant looked uninterested and I felt very alone. I wondered if there was a way to help us in our experience of shopping. I was embarrassed and felt isolated. In those moments I knew there must be a better way to do this.

Talk us through some of the key differences during Slow Shopping times?

Ok, so, first of all, we train staff in awareness, communication and customer service. All customers benefit from clear communication and if customers have a disability or illness which impairs one or more of their senses, communication is especially important. 

Knowledge and clarity: We spend time training staff on how to communicate information effectively – including answers to common questions like the nearest toilets, checkouts, lifts etc. 

Guiding: Some customers may require guiding and we provide specific training on how to lead with sensitivity and care for individuals. 

Understanding: We teach staff how to use their tone of voice to make people feel at ease and unhurried. 

Good practice: We spend a lot of time helping colleagues understand the wide range of impairments that shoppers may have and how they can identify these and adapt their behaviours accordingly. For example, people with dementia can benefit from small amounts of information at a time, whereas people with a hearing impairment will benefit from being able to see your mouth move at all times. 

Other things we discuss include providing food samples, clothes fitting services or demonstrations and workshops. Each organisation is different and so we take a very tailored approach. 

Confidence and self-esteem come from a sense of mattering to others and a feeling of being valued as an individual. We can support this sense by the way we treat people. 

The environment is very important too and we work with stores to make adaptations where possible.

Entrance: We ensure that signage is clear and helpful and that obstructions or clutter is moved. Sometimes black mats or pools of light can be confusing for people living with dementia as the area of the brain that interprets 2D and 3D vision may be impaired, interpreting them instead as holes in the ground or pools of water. Where possible we suggest a member of staff or a welcome point that people can identify as a way to access help if needed. 

Seating: Pairs of chairs placed around the store can really help people to take a short break from shopping if they are starting to struggle. 

Restaurants and cafes: During Slow Shopping times, we encourage cafes to offer an ‘at-table’ service, lay the tables and consider visual impairment. In John Lewis Newcastle for example, a quiet area of the restaurant is identified and tables are set with a purple table cloth. Staff are made aware that anyone sitting in this area may need some help. 

Sounds: We try to minimise sensory overload so during Slow Shopping times, music is often switched off and tannoy announcements are stopped for anything but emergencies. Deliveries and shelf-stacking are also deferred. 

Lighting: Obviously every environment is different but where possible we ask organisations to consider whether harsh bright lighting can be dimmed without causing any accidents or security issues. 

Toilets: It’s important that the signage for toilets is very clear. 

What are your aims for the future? 

I’ve seen what a difference Slow Shopping can make to people and I’m really committed to growing it as much as possible. What I would really like, eventually, is for Slow Shopping to be a recognised time nationally so that everyone knows if they go shopping on say, a Tuesday afternoon, anywhere in the country, there will be additional support available. That’s the long-term goal but for now, it’s about raising awareness and getting as many organisations on board as possible. 

If you would like to get in touch with Katherine regarding Slow Shopping®, e-mail: [email protected]


Businesses currently offering Slow Shopping

NB: Please contact the store directly for further information on Slow Shopping and timings as it may be subject to change. 
Sainsbury’s Gosforth
Tesco Extra – Kingston Park, Eston and Sunderland
IKEA Gateshead
Newcastle Building Society – all branches 
John Lewis – Newcastle
Emmersons Solicitors – Gosforth
Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums, it will be in all nine museums and galleries as it is being rolled out to each one in turn so it is best to contact the museums or gallery that you wish to visit.
Katherine is also working with two shopping centres in other parts of the country; SouthGate Centre in Bath and George Yard in Braintree.
Cranleigh in Surrey are the first whole village in the country to offer Slow Shopping.
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