In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy makes a bold statement with her ruby slippers. These iconic shoes are best known for returning her home. Similarly, Tracy Fornadel has returned to her passion for retail. After years of experience and anticipation, the opening RubyRed Shoe Boutique has been a success in downtown Harrisonburg.
In the past few years, downtown Harrisonburg has seen many changes in the business landscape. More small businesses have opened and as a result, the downtown area has become a more popular shopping destination. Boutique shopping is one of the many unique characteristics that separates the downtown shopping experience from that of a large mall, department store, or chain. For customers to walk into a store and be remembered as a person and valued as a customer is a bonus of the small business platform.
As a local girl, Tracy’s working foundation started at age 15. Her father, Tim Smith was the manager and later the regional sales manager for the department store chain, Watson’s. Watson’s was based out of Knoxville, Tennessee with branches all over the southeastern U.S. It was known for developing the shopping mall experience, from its founding in 1907 until it went out of business in 1992. “Other kids in college were going on spring break trips,” Tracy said. “ I was working at the store.”
Tracy later went on to work as a manager of Express (a women’s fashion store specializing in business attire), Brooks Fashions, and Cellular One. After ten years of enjoying being a mother to her six children, Tracy decided it was time to venture back into retail, only this time she would be her own boss.
Combining both her enthusiasm for the retail industry and her passion for shoes, Tracy decided to open a ladies shoe boutique. “My idea was personal,” explained Tracy. “Having had children and experienced my weight fluctuating, shoes were something I could always count on because they always fit.”
Tracy’s great aunt, whom she called Grandmother Ruby, raised her mom. According to Tracy, Grandmother Ruby was a savvy businesswoman and worked until she was in her seventies. Combining red (Tracy’s favorite color) with her love for her great aunt and The Wizard of Oz, the name seemed only fitting.
Once she had a name, Tracy began her research focusing on small businesses and boutiques. She gathered information from the Internet, other local shops, and family experience. She had a vision of what she wanted the store to look like and determined a budget with which she could work. Her next mission was then finding shoes to fill the store.
After attending her first shoe show in Miami, Florida, Tracy decided that she wanted to provide shoes that people wouldn’t necessarily be able to get at other shoe shops, while serving every customer’s needs. “I don’t want to be known for a specific age group,” says Tracy of her store. “Here, mother, daughter and granddaughter can all shop together.” And her goal has been realized because you can definitely find something to suit your style. Whether you’re looking for wedges, pumps, flats, boots, or stilettos in dressy, casual, or comfortable styles, there is something for at everyone at RubyRed!
Shopping at RubyRed isn’t like browsing the selections at other shoe stores. “When I was growing up, sales people were just really good,” Tracy said. “I think I learned that from my Dad – to give really great customer service.”
The first time I went into RubyRed, a pair of caramel-colored Chinese Laundry wedges held me spellbound. I knew that I couldn’t purchase them at the time, but I had to try them on. As I talked with Tracy, I mentioned briefly that my birthday was soon approaching. Thinking nothing of it, I left her shop, but came back a few weeks later to purchase the shoes. As soon as I walked through the door, Tracy said, “Are you back to treat yourself for your birthday?” The simple gesture of remembering that detail instantly made my shopping experience more than just a sales transaction.
“Customer service is so big,” observes Tracy. “The more you can make someone feel special, the likelier they are to come back. We have somehow gotten away from what shopping is meant to be – an experience.”
“Grassroots [support] has been really big for my small business,” Tracy explained about her young store, which has only been open for six months. Using Facebook as her primary marketing tool, she is able to spread the word about her hours, deals, or new shoes to all of the people who follow her page. As of now, she has 558 Facebook Likes and hopes to reach over a thousand before the end of her first year.
After the success of Black Friday and Small Business Saturday, she also anticipates being open with Christmas Eve specials for those last minute shoppers. Tracy is also excited about the possibility of hosting special events like birthdays or bridal showers or partnering with sororities for their philanthropic efforts. The possibilities for her success are endless.
After experiencing it last year as a shopper, Tracy is looking forward to this weekend’s Shop Til You Drop event, presented by the Merchants of Historic Downtown Harrisonburg and Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance. She experienced it as a shopper last year, but is excited to participate as a business owner this year. Shop Til You Drop is the second annual holiday open house in downtown Harrisonburg, held this Saturday, December 8 from 5:00-9:00 pm. The event features extended shopping hours, special promotions, holiday food and drinks, art exhibits, free gift wrapping, and lots of festive cheer! For more information, including a list and map of the 26 participating businesses, as well as details about each location’s special promotions, please visit the Shop Til You Drop webpage.
This type of collaboration between small businesses in the downtown Harrisonburg community creates a type of synergy and understanding between them. As Tracy observed, “There is power in numbers for sure. If you make an event and get many businesses involved, it brings more people downtown.” Working together to bring people downtown is mutually beneficial for the well-being of all downtown businesses.
Kari Owens is the Promotions Intern at Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance and a senior Media Arts & Design major and Creative Writing minor at James Madison University.