Tales From The Pandemic: 5 Lessons From ThirdLove CEO Heidi Zak

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All retail businesses felt the aftershocks of COVID-19 — whether in the form of stalled business, forced layoffs or seismic shifts in consumer behaviors. However, companies like ThirdLove were able to tap into their core competencies and find new ways to serve customer needs.

A clear leader in the direct-to-consumer (DTC) space, ThirdLove is no stranger to innovation. During an exclusive video interview, co-founder and CEO Heidi Zak explained how the company had to level up and, in some cases, completely reimagine their processes. Following are five of the key lessons learned from the pandemic:

Lesson 1: Go all-in on data

ThirdLove’s digital roots allow the company to collect and leverage data in incredible ways. While Zak will dive deep into how data informs all facets of the ThirdLove business during her session at the Retail Innovation Conference, she noted that ThirdLove’s ability to create personal and exceptional experiences across all channels depend on the brand’s ability to collect a variety of data points about customers, their preferences and behaviors.

“We can collect a lot of data about customers, where they’re visiting from and from what marketing channel, and really tie it together,” Zak said. Whether through email, social media or text, the brand can “engage with you in a very different way than just treating you like every other woman in the world.”

Lesson 2: Find new ways to differentiate online

The ThirdLove mission, according to Zak, is to “help women feel comfortable and confident in their everyday lives.” Sizing plays a crucial role in the intimates category, and many women often rely on store and boutique associates to guide them through the sizing process. When stores closed during the pandemic, that value driver was lost, presenting ThirdLove with an opportunity to stand out online. To date, the brand’s Fit Finder has provided accurate sizing recommendations to more than 17 million women, including new users. “We’re seeing a benefit for women trying us for the first time, simply because there’s more of a need,” Zak explained. “We’re offering that type of service she’d get in a department store, digitally.”

Lesson 3: Plan for the worst, hope for the best

Like many brands, ThirdLove saw business “tank” when the pandemic first hit, Zak noted. To develop a swift plan to action, the entire leadership team got together to make some tough calls — including layoffs — and plan for worst-case scenarios, such as warehouse closures. “We modeled out what [those scenarios] look like to determine how we could get through it,” Zak explained. She added that between ever-changing regulations, guidelines for store openings and operations, a recession and shifting consumer sentiment, “forecasting is impossible. We just have to inform ourselves of what ‘really bad’ looks like so if it happens, we’re not scrambling. Prepare for the worst, hope for the best.”

Lesson 4: Get scrappy with content creation

Content is crucial for keeping ThirdLove communities active and engaged. When stay-at-home orders were enforced, the team had to find new ways to keep the marketing machine running. First, the video team re-used and recut video that was already developed in-house for new scenarios. Then, ThirdLove tapped into its employee base to create net-new photos and videos at home. All new and repurposed content was used in conjunction with messaging that emphasized self-care, comfort and wellness, which “really resonated” for ThirdLove communities.

“As a startup, one of the things we do really well is pivot and move super quickly,” Zak noted. This was ThirdLove’s secret weapon over the past six months, when “every month, we were dealing with something else.”

Lesson 5: Contribute to social conversations with intention

Amid the pandemic, the U.S. experienced significant social unrest sparked by the murder of George Floyd. Because the ThirdLove business was built upon inclusivity and a commitment to creating a brand where “all women see themselves,” Zak noted that she and the leadership team worked hard to figure out how to support the Black Lives Matter movement in a way that’s “authentic and lasting” for the business. The result was The TL Effect, a new program that gives female entrepreneurs of color access to funding, mentorship, operational support or anything else they need to scale their businesses. ThirdLove is in the process of selecting its first recipient and plans to pick a new one every quarter.  

Zak will share more insights around how ThirdLove used data to quickly adapt and respond to new consumer needs during the Retail Innovation Conference’s e-Commerce Optimization track. Register for an All-Access Pass to gain access to this and 50+ other sessions.

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