Wednesday, March 18, 2009

As Economy Plummets, Cashless Bartering Soars on the Internet

As Economy Plummets, Cashless Bartering Soars on the Internet
By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, March 14, 2009; A08

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LONDON -- The next time Kevan Quinn needs his sink unclogged, he won't pay cash. Instead, Quinn will take the plumber and his family out sailing on his boat.

"In this climate, when everyone's concerned about their money, this is a cracking idea," said Quinn, 49, a father of three who found his plumber on, a bartering Web site based in Britain. "It's a great way to get things done without using cash."

Bartering and swapping are booming as the global financial crisis squeezes cash out of the world's wallet. Web sites and business organizations promoting cash-free transactions are growing, from New Hampshire to New Zealand to Sri Lanka, as unemployment soars and millions are struggling to pay their bills.

"It's hot right now," said Ron Whitney of the International Reciprocal Trade Association, based in Portsmouth, Va.

Whitney said that about $12 billion worth of business-to-business bartering happens each year around the world and that more than 250,000 U.S. businesses bartered goods and services last year.

Now, he said, the growing recession has created new interest in that long-established business trade, as well as boosting the person-to-person swaps taking place on Web sites and in community networks worldwide.

A spokesman for Craigslist, the online classified advertising service, said bartering has doubled on the site in the past year. Proposed swaps listed on the Washington area Craigslist site this week included accounting services in return for food, and a woman offering a week in her Hilton Head, S.C., vacation home for dental work for her husband.

"Obviously people are looking for other ways of getting what they need without paying for it," said Nicole Wehden, founder of Swapaskill, which will soon launch in Washington and other cities across the United States.

"The general mood is gradually coming away from the spend-spend-spend culture," Wehden said. "People are taking stock and seeing if there is another way of doing things." lists people looking for barters and swaps in more than 80 countries.

California-based lists more than 3.4 million items for barter or swap, from Chevies to Frisbees to gymnastics coaching.

Sites such as are becoming increasingly popular with those who don't want to pay for a vacation home. But others cater to people who want to meet the mundane needs of everyday life without using cash or credit cards.

One person in England recently traded several old cellphones for a secondhand motorcycle, while others have traded gardening for babysitting. They are swapping skills from physical therapy to French lessons, to a woman offering services as a "secretary/stripper."

It is up to the swappers to determine what is a fair trade and how to mail or exchange the goods and services.

Paul Kay, co-founder of, said the "absolutely enormous" increase in his business also reflects a desire for transactions that are less about commerce and more about connections between people.

"This is a new community spirit I've seen within the last three months as things get tighter economically," Kay said.

With unemployment in the United States and Britain climbing, some people said bartering is the only way to make ends meet.

"I'm using barter Web sites just to see what we can do to survive," said Zedd Epstein, 25, who owned a business restoring historic houses in Iowa until May, when he was forced to close it as the economy soured.

Epstein, in a telephone interview, said he has not been able to find work since, and he and his wife moved to California in search of jobs.

Epstein said he has had several bartering jobs he found on Craigslist. He drywalled a room in exchange for some tools, he poured a concrete shed floor in return for having a new starter motor installed in his car, and he helped someone set up their TV and stereo system in return for a hot meal.

"Right now, this is what people are doing to get along," said Epstein, who is studying for an electrical engineering degree.

"If you need your faucet fixed and you know auto mechanics, there's definitely a plumber out there who's out of work and has something on his car that needs to be fixed," he said.

Quinn, the boat owner, said he earns a good salary as a project manager for an aviation company and two years ago decided to treat himself to a sailboat.

"People assume that because you have a boat you have lots of money," said Quinn, who said buying the 36-foot craft drained a lot of his cash, which is now much more scarce.

"You don't have to be on the verge of bankruptcy to swap skills," he said.

Judy Berger, founder of, a swapping Web site based in Britain that focuses on fashion, said her site has 22,000 users around the world. She said that her users are swapping about 1,000 items a week and that her site is becoming "less eBay, more Facebook" as swappers create relationships with groups of swappers with similar tastes.

She said more users, mainly women, are pairing off with someone of similar size and fashion sense and constantly refreshing their wardrobe with each other's clothes.

In the current economic climate, Berger said, cashless bartering allows shopaholics to find a less expensive outlet for their habit.

"They are saying, 'I've saved this amount of money this year that I didn't spend on clothes,' " Berger said. "It's a new way of looking at shopping."

Simon Roberts, 42, from Nottingham, England, has turned swapping into a business.

In February 2008, Roberts had an old Ford van worth about $400. He was out of work and needed money, so on a whim he looked on the Internet and came across Swapz.

He traded his van for an SUV worth about $3,000, he said. The SUV owner needed a van, so he was willing to make the uneven trade.

"It doesn't matter what you got, or what it costs; it's what the other person wants to pay," Roberts said.

In the year since then, Roberts said he has made 39 swaps, and he estimates he is more than $30,000 ahead of where he started. He now owns a bouncy castle company, which he got in a swap for a fancy four-wheel-drive truck. He also owns a Mercedes-Benz and has about $12,000.

He said he got the cash from selling one car, pocketing most of the money but using a bit to buy a cheap car and start swapping all over again.

"Sell your house and get into it," Roberts said. "Honestly, I really would."

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