Our team at ThirdLove just opened our first brick and mortar concept store in NYC. The idea had been discussed many times over the years, but it was only in the past six months or so that the timing felt right to try a physical location.

As a direct-to-consumer (DTC) company our entire business is online, so our goal with the pop-up is really to test the waters of retail and learn more about the opportunities and challenges we'll face if we decide to move forward with more stores. 

For every entrepreneur, growth presents its own possibilities. But as I've quickly realized, opening a physical store as a DTC brand comes with both risks and potential rewards. 

Here's what our team has learned so far:

1. Make sure the timing is right. 

I've said in the past that ThirdLove would never open a brick and mortar store--and at the time, I meant it. 

But a lot can happen in two or three years. Most importantly, our customers have been continually requesting a physical location. Finally, we felt like the time was right to try our hand at a pop-up location. For one thing, ThirdLove is a much more recognizable name now than it was three years ago. And that larger brand awareness gives the store a much better chance of success. It's also very likely that we wouldn't have spent quite as much to turn our vision of the store into a reality a few years ago. Now, we have the funds to make sure every detail is just as we imagined it.   

Before you take a DTC company into the retail world, you have to be confident you can give it the resources and attention it needs to be successful. 

2. Know that you can't fully prepare.

Physical retail is simply a different animal. You can plan and strategize as much as you want, but you really don't know what you're in for with that first store. 

For one thing, operational differences are enormous. Everything from how you organize inventory to how you manage customers and purchases has to change. In fact, our back of house wasn't entirely ready on the first day the store opened. I was running around with our Chief Creative Officer, Ra'el, pulling product for customers and helping unpack boxes as women requested various try on sizes. 

When you make the leap from online sales to a physical location, you won't be able to prepare for every little difference or hiccup that occurs. Consider any challenge the learning curve you have to go through to come out on the other side. 

3. Decide how to judge your success. 

Anytime you're working on a new initiative, you have to know exactly why you're doing it and how you're going to judge success. 

For our pop-up, we'll be successful if we can learn more about our customers. After buying a bra in-store, do they buy their next bra online? Or do they come back to the store? Do they purchase more or less than the average customer we acquire online? What do return and exchange rates look like for this cohort of women?

The answers to all of those questions and more will determine whether or not we can view the store as a success--and choose to create more locations.

4. Cater the design to your brand.

A DTC company cultivates its brand online. When you open a physical location, one challenge is translating that brand into a retail environment that truly reflects your company and your values. 

ThirdLove was built as an alternative to the generally terrible experience most women have buying bras in-person. So, we knew our retail location had to take into account everything that women dislike about bra shopping and actively avoid those issues. 

Right away, customers see that the store isn't self-serve. There are no hangers or racks for women to dig through. Instead, they fill out our Fit Finder questionnaire at the front of the store and then work with a fit stylist to choose which bras they want to try. The fitting rooms themselves are private, with trays that allow fit stylists to pass products to customers if they prefer not to interact with anyone. And to avoid the horror of fluorescent lights, there are also two lighting settings: daylight and twilight. 

Basically, we tried to create an environment where women could actually feel comfortable.

No matter your company, you'll have to consider the many elements of a physical store if you make the leap to retail. You have to be ready and willing to look at what's working--and what's not--and make decisions accordingly.

There will always be surprises when your brand enters unfamiliar territory. It can be stressful and overwhelming at times, but if you've timed it right, a leap into the unknown can set your company on a new, exciting path forward.

Published on: Aug 21, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.