The Barter Economy Chugs Along While Paying Jobs Remain Hard to Come By

What would you trade for a copy of the New York Times, Nov. 19, 1863, which includes a report on Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg address? Or maybe you're in the market to exchange theater tickets for some single-malt scotch? Or need some wallpapering done and are willing to offer time at your Vermont cottage?

Welcome to the bartering economy, a system of no-money trading that experts say is booming in Connecticut and across the globe. It turns out to be one area that the Great Recession has actually helped.

"It's huge, it's incredible," says Debbie Lombardi, president of Barter Business Unlimited, a Bristol-based operation that opened four years ago. She says the fact that businesses and individuals are often cash-poor these days (thank you Wall Street) means that bartering is often the only way to go.

The International Reciprocal Trade Association estimated that global business bartering in 2011 amounted to something in the neighborhood of $12 billion and involved more than 400,000 companies.

Lots of those businesses and individuals are looking to barter something specific that they don't need for something they do need or want. Other times, a would-be barterer will just throw out an offer and see what comes back.

Like that 1863 copy of the New York Times, for instance, which was put up on a bartering website by Joseph Abreu of Farmington.

"I put these ads in and you never know what you'll get," Abreu says. Of course, a lot of the time no one wants what you're offering. "I would say that 90 percent of the stuff I put up I don't get any response on."

Abreu got hooked on the barter economy about 10 years ago when he was looking to unload about 40 acres of land he owned in northern Maine. Already in the business of investment and real estate, Abreu says he took a wild shot and put up an ad on one of the barter websites that were springing up back then. (There are now more than 40 such sites listed by consumer advice gurus like Coupon Sherpa.)

A guy contacted Abreu with an offer to swap a multi-family house in Waterbury for that Maine property, and the deal was done. "I spruced it up and flipped it … and netted over $50,000," he recalls proudly. After that, he was hooked on bartering.

Abreu warns that there are scam artists out there in the bartering world and strongly recommends using reputable bartering websites and checking a potential bartering partner's reviews. He says he rarely agrees to deal with someone who doesn't have any reviews on the web, and believes the risks in online bartering aren't terrible if one is careful. And a lot of folks now agree with him.

An actor and comedian named Josh Sankey is right now attempting a cross-country bartering trip (financed by the Oscar Mayer Co.) using a tractor-trailer load of bacon to get him from New York City to Los Angeles trading meat for everything from sleeping accommodations to sports tickets.

According to the Harvard Business Review, the business of barter is seeing phenomenal growth.

A recent HBR blog post reported that companies "see bartering as a way to steer around the restrictions imposed by cash and credit, to extract value from perishable or underperforming assets, and to expand channels to market and find new customers."

And barter exchange companies (like Lombardi's firm), which act as intermediaries between companies and individuals, are also cashing in on the trend.

Lombardi says she charges both parties in a barter exchange 7 percent of the value of the transaction. "It's less than tipping a waitress at a restaurant," she laughs.

The way it works is this: say you're an eye doctor who wants some fencing work done at your home. So a barter exchange puts you in touch with a fencing contractor who's looking for some advertising work. The contractor will get some media services from a public relations firm that might want to provide eye exams and eye care for its employees, and the circle is complete.

Of course, it's not quite that simple or neat usually, Lombardi points out. But if part of the exchange of goods or services is valued at less than what's given in return, one of the parties can get credit with the barter exchange firm for the difference. According to Lombardi, each business must put a dollar figure on the product or service it is offering in value that is equal to what it would routinely charge for that service based on the prevailing market rate.

"We actually operate as a little bank," says Lombardi.

Her company is staging its annual Barter Expo in Windsor Locks on Nov. 15 and is expecting something like 3,500 people to show up and millions of dollars' worth of goods and services to be traded.

Cathy Lapierre of Newington wasn't looking for anything too grand when she put up her offer of time at her family's four-season ski chalet in Vermont. All she wanted was some wall-paper removal and painting work.

So far, Lapierre's first-time bartering experience hasn't been successful. "My suspicion is that I was too specific in what I was offering," she says, but she is considering making another attempt.

"It seems like a good way to use something we already have to get some service we wouldn't have to pay for," is Lapierre's attitude.

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