Dr. Christina Soyoung Song, an assistant professor in the Department of Family and Consumer Sciences, has a goal of focusing on research projects that are future-forward. “Many students and people might perceive clothing and fashion in a limited manner,” she said. “Clothing can do so many things, including being functional and efficient. I want to push the boundaries of people’s perception of their clothing and widen the scope of fashion research.”

Song’s scholarly work definitely fits the bill of future-forward, as she has been focused on the use of robots in the retail industry.

While retailers such as Amazon have been using robots in warehouses to increase production and distribution speed, Song’s research looks at robots through a sales lens. “How can robots accommodate consumers’ needs and support them in the store? These robots can actually predict what we want.”

This is a shift in how the general public used to view robots. “In the past, we researched how and why people might be afraid of interacting with robots,” said Song. “Now, I’m researching why people might want them.”

The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has made the research even more relevant. “Robotic and automation research will become more important because of the current times,” she said. “The ability to automate service will make sure that people have less interaction with humans, and therefore less risk exposure. COVID-19 means that retailers are speaking up and wanting to adopt this way of selling.”

Song’s research features robots in the stores interacting with consumers. Customers can reach out and touch the robot. Her research is advanced, since not many stores have incorporated robots into their business model. She expects more robots to be in use in 10 years. Robots are currently more prevalent in Asia than the United States. Japan is currently testing a non-human store, and additional companies in Asia are using the robots in airports. Song notes that the hospitality industry could be an additional frontier for robots, thinking that it could be feasible for robots to deliver towels or shampoo to hotel guests.

“Consumers have to be ready to accept the robot,” said Song. “Japanese have been quicker to do this than Americans, but there is currently a fair amount of testing in California.” Song said that she could see robots used in home stores such as Lowe’s or Home Depot first. They could easily help shoppers find the correct size of nails or screws, or the right aisle for light bulbs.

Robots are also useful when it comes to inventory. “Lots of stores, particularly grocery stores, don’t necessarily have good inventory systems in place,” said Song. “Robots can quickly scan shelves and help determine what sold out quickly and why. They can then answer questions from the customers immediately, while also gathering data.”

Ultimately, the shopping experience for retail consumers is changing. “The robots can predict the future,” said Song. “They are able to anticipate what I want and what I will purchase.”

The physical robots in the store are outfitted with the artificial intelligence necessary to communicate with both the consumer and also the company’s big data. Similar to how Amazon sends their customers predictions of what else they might like; the physical robots can make suggestions as well. “That information is already in the robot,” Song explained. “For this to be successful, the robot is using the same information that the company already has.”

“The physical robot can offer suggestions, could find an item for a consumer to try on in the store, or could even ship an item to the consumer’s home if the physical store is out of a certain size or color,” said Song. “Everything is essentially online except for the physical shopping experience. Even though the customer has gone to the store, the store can assist them using all of the same information they would have in an online shopping experience.”

Song’s robot-focused research won Paper of Distinction in both 2019 (“Consumers’ Adoption of Fashion Robot Advisor: A Joint-Network Analysis”) and 2020 (“Should We Be Afraid of Artificial Intelligence? Consumer Willingness to Share Personal Information with Fashion Sales Robots”) at the International Textile and Apparel Association’s annual conference. Both papers were co-authored with Youn-Kyung Kim, Ph,D., at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

In addition, Song received the 2019 University of Fashion/Laurence King Publishing Faculty Award for demonstrated commitment to upgrading skills, learning new techniques, and the desire to become a lifelong learner for continuous improvement of teaching. She is also the 2019 recipient of the Aging and Public Health’s Betty J. Cleckley Minority Issues Research Award from the American Public Health Association’s Annual Meeting and Expo.

To learn more about Song’s research and the Department of Family and Consumer Sciences, please visit FCS.IllinoisState.edu.