When shoppers check out at Wegmans in Hunt Valley, they can choose self-scan, express or wheelchair-accessible lanes. Recently, they've been offered another option. In two designated "looped" aisles, concealed technology can erase background noise and make it easier for customers with hearing loss to converse with store clerks and others.
Wegmans installed induction hearing loops, designed to deliver speech clearly to hearing aids or implants in noisy environments, in 17 stores last year, including the one at Hunt Valley Towne Center, after testing the technology at two stores near its headquarters in Rochester, N.Y.
The grocer now plans to install the stations in all 88 stores in six states by the end of the year. Besides checkout lanes, loops are available at the pharmacy and customer service department.
"We want to provide customers with hearing loss a better way to ask questions, an easier shopping experience," said Jo Natale, a Wegmans spokeswoman. "We want them to be comfortable in our stores."
The technology — which works with hearing aids or implants with telecoils, or T-coils — has been available for decades and is used in places such as churches and auditoriums. Loops are widely used in the United Kingdom, but installation has been slower and spottier in the United States, experts said. Wegmans is the first supermarket/pharmacy chain to roll loops out across its brand, advocates said.
The systems use condenser microphones that capture the sound of someone speaking. "Smart" amplifiers remove background noise and send the clarified sound to an induction loop, which converts it into a wireless electromagnetic field. T-coils act like antennae, picking up the signal and delivering the sound to the ear.
The technology is "just getting going" in the U.S., where it can be found mostly in houses of worship, meeting rooms, libraries, theaters and school auditoriums, said Juliette Sterkens, a retired audiologist who travels the nation advocating for hearing loop technology for the Hearing Loss Association of America.
"Wegmans is being very proactive," Sterkens said. "They are not required to do this. They are doing this as a matter of good customer service."
Hearing loops eliminate distractions caused by background noise, reverberation or distance, she said.
"Background noise and reverberation kill speech understanding for people with hearing loss," she said, even with improvements in hearing aids, which work best at a short distance.
At Wegmans, signs alert customers to loops, but the only other visible signs are small black microphones attached to the credit card readers at service counters and checkout lanes. The systems are designed to be unobtrusive, and store employees and non-hearing-impaired customers might never know when it's in use, said Sarah Guthall, Wegmans' IT zone technician for Maryland. Users only need to flip a switch on their hearing aid to activate the T-coil.
Melissa O'Neill, 36, president of the Greater Baltimore chapter of the Hearing Loss Association, said she has used a hearing aid since she was a child. She said she relies on loops at her church and the association's meeting room but knows of no others in the area.
"That's pretty cool," O'Neill said when told about the loops at Wegmans. "I would be more likely to go and support a business that did have loops."
O'Neill, who works at the cafe at the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration in Glen Burnie, described the technology as providing a direct line into her hearing aid.
"It's a lot better," she said. "It definitely helps. … It definitely improves things for the hard-of-hearing population."
Nearly two-thirds of people age 70 and older have a major hearing impairment, said Frank R. Lin, an associate professor of otolaryngology/head and neck surgery, geriatric medicine, mental health and epidemiology at Johns Hopkins University and its Bloomberg School of Public Health.
"Hearing loss is really, really common," Lin said. "Anyone with any substantive degree of hearing impairment in an environment with a lot of background noise, at checkout at grocery stores or talking to pharmacists, it makes it very very difficult to hear, even with hearing aids. It can make all the difference in not wanting to go out."
Lin pushed to have the waiting rooms at the hospital's Listening Center clinic looped several years ago, but he said the technology has been slow to catch on in the Baltimore area.
Wegmans was first alerted to the technology by Janice S. Lintz, a New York City resident whose daughter has hearing loss and who has spent more than a decade advocating for loops in public places. Businesses that have installed loops include some locations of Bank of America, Shake Shack, Apple and Capital One Bank. She also pushed for the loops that are now in thousands of taxis in and more than a hundred subway ticket booths in New York City.
"This isn't about charity or about the [Americans with Disabilities Act], this is about providing excellent customer service to all your clients, including those with hearing loss," said Lintz, who now works as a consultant. "If you add this, you will grow your reach. You're leaving money on the table when you don't have access for people with hearing loss."
Lintz said she approached Wegmans because she viewed the chain as innovative, thinking, "If I can get one supermarket chain to add it, then all the supermarket chains would add it. I'm thrilled they're rolling it across their brand."
Part of her work has been to change the perception of who has hearing loss, from "other people to the person next to you, your grandparents, your children."
She said 30 percent of people age 65 and older and one in five teenagers have some degree of hearing difficulty.
"No one should have to ask permission to hear," she said.
Wegmans started testing loops at two stores in 2014. When no feedback came in, the grocer enlisted the help of the Rochester chapter of the Hearing Loss Association, who sent members to test it.
It soon became apparent that the systems worked better in some areas than others. Deli areas did not work well for loops, Natale said, because both customers and employees moved too much for the stationary microphones to work properly. It worked well in the pharmacy and at checkout, however.
Sterkens said hearing loops can help people with hearing loss feel less isolated.
"Just about everyone has a parent or grandparent or knows someone who is hard of hearing," she said. "They give up. They don't go to church or the theater because it takes so much effort to hear. This is one way that we can really bring some of the people back into the main fold."