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Designing a More Inclusive Retail Experience

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Since the start of the pandemic, the prevalence ofanxiety, stress, depression and PTSD amongst all age groups has skyrocketed — igniting more conversations around mental health. Subsequently, the term “neurodiversity” has sprung up in multiple conversations surrounding the way we interact with our environments. Neurodiversity celebrates the differences in how people’s brains take in and process information. Think of those who experience a traumatic brain injury or are prescribed medication that temporarily affects how their brain functions.

As people age their brain capacity changes in various ways and at one point in time in all of our lives, neurodiversity will affect all of us. Thus, designing spaces that cater to diverse populations — above all social, mental and physical barriers — is gaining momentum to ensure inclusivity.

Physical environments have a significant impact on the neurodiverse population, and it trickles down to their nervous system, productivity, mood and overall well-being. As designers, we sit in a unique position to create spaces that allow people across all spectrums to feel comfortable and welcomed. Discussions surrounding neurodiversity and inclusion have long occurred in the workplace, but they are beginning to take shape in the retail sphere.

A Neurodiverse Shopping Experience

When it comes to retail, typical store design helps boost a shopper’s mood, often influencing them into making a purchase. For the neurodiverse, the experience can be quite the opposite. The combination of sounds, smells, lights and layout can make a simple shopping session stressful and challenging. As designers, it is our job to create inclusive spaces that provide neurodiverse individuals with the same experience as everyone else, but in a way that makes them feel comfortable and cared for.

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A more inclusive retail environment will reflect the Americans with Disabilities Standards for Accessible Design. The specifications for this standard are customary within retail design and are used to assist everyone, not just those who are physically challenged. Many of us have used these design elements to enhance our shopping experiences without even realizing it. Think of how many times you’ve had your hands full and were able to click the button for the automatic door, or the time you didn’t want to carry the stroller up a flight of stairs and took the elevator. This is our hope for neurodiverse design — we want to create spaces that cater to the needs of the neurodiverse group but also benefit the everyday shopper.

One retailer that successfully implemented a neurodiverse-friendly shopping experience is Sephora. This retailer utilizes color-coded baskets that communicate with sales associates how to treat guests while they’re in the store. For example, the red basket tells employees, “I would like to be assisted,” while the black basket means “I would like to shop independently.” This type of experience creates a clear understanding of the relationship between shopper and sales associate, specifically helping shoppers avoid an anxiety-inducing experience.

Digital and Acoustic Solutions

Seamless integration of technology helps create a more inclusive shopping experience. For many, engaging with technology is common. Incorporating smart kiosks that provide shoppers with information on products is beneficial to those hesitant to approach a salesperson. Designers will also need to find a way to create a better shopping experience by utilizing smartphones. By taking advantage of the personal devices we carry daily, retailers can better support individuals with communication barriers or hearing-impaired customers to help guide them through the store.

Another example is rethinking the dressing room. Some people require assistance from friends or family when trying on clothing, so it’s important to provide a place where those who need assistance or who are providing assistance feel comfortable and safe while doing so.

Additionally, providing what may be known as a ‘VIP exclusive perk’ to all shoppers gives customers a more comfortable and approachable shopping experience. This includes scheduled fitting room sessions. Before arrival, guests select the clothes they wish to try on, and an employee preps the dressing room so that it is ready when the customer gets there. Within these dressing rooms, there is also an opportunity to incorporate technology that elevates the customer experience while amplifying the level of personalization. Giving shoppers options to adjust the lighting, change the music and even request help if desired creates a pleasant and convenient shopping journey.

Designers must also account for acoustic solutions. When designing a space, we always consider materiality to create a good balance of hard and soft materials. This results in an appropriate noise level throughout the space. However, in big box retailers like Target or Home Depot, adjusting for materiality is not always possible. As an alternative, retailers can provide noise-canceling headphones upon entering to cater to those with hearing sensitivities or those who simply want to use them.

Wayfinding and Inclusive Layouts

Wayfinding and signage is another way to foster an inclusive shopping experience; specifically, the use of iconography for wayfinding over text. This allows those whose first language isn’t English and those who are dyslexic to be able to easily understand how to navigate a space. Additionally, a simple fix is uploading store maps online. This allows neurodiverse shoppers to feel cared for and comfortable before arrival. By knowing where all products live, they can make their purchases a lot faster and in a more streamlined manner.

It is imperative that we better understand how all people interact with the spaces around them in the design industry. We must focus on creating a comfortable space that provides the same experience for all shoppers. Whether the answer is an increase in technology integration, iconography, or uploading a store map to a brand’s website, these types of solutions will come down to what’s best for each brand and its consumer base. As designers, we must ensure that the experience we provide customers aligns with what they stand for. 


Kristin Cerutti and Meredith Seeds are Design Leaders at NELSON Worldwide. With more than 15 years of experience in interior design, Cerutti serves as a lead designer on a wide variety of projects across NELSON Worldwide’s workplace practice. She is NCIDQ, LEED AP ID+C, and WELL AP certified and knowledgeable in amenity, financial and legal workplace design. Cerutti has been published in various industry-leading publications including Interiors & Sources, Workplaces Magazine, Work Design, Business of Furniture and more. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point, with a Bachelor of the Arts, Interior Architecture. As a Design Leader at NELSON Worldwide, Seeds provides both a strategic and artistic approach to developing creative design solutions for leading lifestyle brands. She graduated from the University of Cincinnati with a Bachelor of Interior Design and has over 20 years’ experience.  She is a 40 under 40 award winner, VMSD Designer Dozen recipient, and her projects have received multiple industry awards throughout her career. In addition, Seeds has partnered with iconic brands including Levi’s, American Girl, Sephora, Luxottica, T-Mobile, Men’s Wearhouse, OPI, Harley-Davidson, Tiffany’s and Macy’s.

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