Smelling the washing-up liquid, feeling the chocolate bar for nuts – shopping in the dark is quite a challenge, as hundreds of Swiss shoppers discovered last week.
The Swiss Federation of the Blind and Visually Impaired organised this rare experience for shoppers at a mall near Fribourg. swissinfo went along to take the test.
With more than 80 per cent of information coming through sight, it is very disconcerting to suddenly find yourself plunged into darkness. The darkness in the specially constructed tent was absolute.
Clutching my shopping basket and concentrating on memorising my shopping list, I was very relieved to be led by one of the blind guides inside the tent to the shopping shelves.
When I had finished smelling, shaking and feeling the products, I stood quietly waiting to be rescued, not daring to step out into what seemed to be a huge dark space.
Test of courage
Listening to the conversations of other shoppers and guides in the tent, I felt the constant thrum of the shopping centre through my feet and tried to overcome mild flutters of panic.
I was supposed to make my way to the bar to sample and identify the drinks there but it took time to work up the courage to reach out and find it. When I did, I realised that the bar was right next to me.
"The darkness in the tent allows people to have some fun but it also makes them think. After they come out, people often need to talk about their experience and we are there for that," Hervé Richoz of the blind federation told swissinfo.
"For many it is the first time they have had a conversation with a blind or visually impaired person. It helps to break down barriers," Richoz explained.
Jean-Marc Meyrat, another member of the federation, was helping check what shoppers had in their baskets after exiting the tent.
"People come out with more understanding for the blind and a feeling of solidarity," he commented.
Meyrat found the different reactions interesting. "Some say they felt the tent was very small, others say it felt very big and we notice people tend to speak louder inside because they are unsure of themselves."
Sarah and Aurélie, two students from Fribourg told swissinfo they had come along out of curiosity after their teacher told them about the event.
"It was quite distressing at times to be in the dark like that," Aurélie said after coming out of the tent. "We had to trust the helpers in there, just by the sound of their voice."
Rosalind Zaugg, one of the guides working for the Federation, greeted newcomers to the entrance of the tent and accompanied them inside. She also teaches English for the federation.
"When an event like this is well done, it is very rewarding for us and for the visitors. The important thing is to have time to talk."
Zaugg first began to have problems with her sight 27 years ago when she had her first child. "Over the years I kept hoping it would get better so it was a terrible shock when I lost the vision completely in one eye four years ago through a medical error."
She now only has peripheral vision in one eye. "Peripheral vision enables you to get around but what really changed my life was computers. With an adapted computer I can do everything I need to do, it's very liberating."
According to Richoz, the biggest challenge faced by visually impaired people is access to the employment market, despite excellent advances in technology.
"Some efforts have been made and there is a certain degree of good will but it is still difficult for us because employers are afraid of our disability."
"As well as that working roles are becoming so specialised that it's hard to find a suitable position for a visually impaired or blind person."
Living in the dark
Some 100,000 blind and visually impaired people live in Switzerland.
The blind shopping experience at the Avry Centre near Fribourg is the fifth event of its kind organised by the Swiss Federation of the Blind and Visually Impaired since 2004. Expenses were paid by the host retailer Migros.
The blind shopping concept traces it origins back to the national exhibition in 2002 and the Blindekuh project in Murten.
The success of this cultural experience in the dark led to the setting up of the Blindekuh restaurants in Zurich and later Basel, which offer dining in the dark and are staffed by visually impaired people.
In compliance with the JTI standards