Ester Venouziou enjoys shopping at independent stores with good customer service.
The 38-year-old page designer at the St. Petersburg Times avoids the big-box stores.
In fact, her devotion to shopping small was so great that she started a group on the social networking site Facebook.com.
The group, "Breaking the Chains," was an instant hit with friends and co-workers.
In August, Venouziou took it a step further. She launched an online business that promotes locally owned, independent stores, restaurants and service providers.
The Web site, www.localshops1.com, allows independent businesses in the Tampa Bay area to market themselves online.
A general listing is free, but for an annual fee, businesses can receive upgraded packages with photos and profiles.
Venouziou started off by herself but now works with a small group of regional representatives to help her with day-to-day operations.
More than 500 businesses are now listed.
The site also allows browsers to register and create a profile, similar to MySpace or Facebook, and receive e-mails when stores have a sale or offer special deals. Registration is free.
Higher-level members also receive a party to drum up community spirit and publicity for their business.
"All the parties that we do, we try to have a fundraiser tied to it. The store provides items for a raffle, and all proceeds go to the charity," Venouziou said.
One nonprofit group that benefited was Friends of Strays, in St. Petersburg.
Venouziou met Peggy Fadden at a Gulfport Chamber of Commerce mixer, and they were able to arrange a benefit in Dunedin on behalf of the group.
"She's a wonderful person with a big heart," said Fadden, director public relations for Friends of Strays. "I'm very impressed with her business. She's just going to go full speed ahead."
Venouziou and tbt*/Tampa Bay Times, the Times' free daily entertainment/news publication, are collaborating on a holiday shopping guide.
Venouziou said that buying locally stimulates growth.
"I started thinking more about the economy and how we spend our money and how it supports the economy," she said.