Trade secrets: Bartering on the rise

Since opening his Dreamteam Ink tattoo and piercing studio in 2009 in Randallstown, James "JJ" Joseph, 26, has kept an open mind as to what customers could use for payment.

In addition to cash, he's received flat-screen TVs, car audio equipment, jewelry, laptops, cell phones and more. About four weeks ago, a happy client not only helped spread the word on his business, but gave him a $1,200 Teacup Yorkie puppy he named Tank.

This does not strike him as unusual.

"Bartering has become very popular lately. I find a lot of people are more willing to trade goods and services instead of cash," Joseph said. "Bartering is a lot more personal because you are taking something you love — in my case, my art — for something someone loves."

Judging from scattered statistics and stories such as Joseph's, there's evidence that bartering is on the rise. A spokeswoman for Craigslist told Chicago's RedEye that the site's bartering listings have "been doubling year by year."

Bartering — like layaway, pawning and thrift stores — seems to be a means of commerce that's enjoying a comeback as the economy stumbles. It's particularly suited to the Web age; though community organizations and even groups of friends organize swap events, bartering benefits from the Web's ability to help strangers connect.

"We view consumer swapping/bartering to be the oldest form of commerce on the planet. Despite the establishment of global currencies, markets and trade, swapping persists today," said Jeff Bennett, CEO of Boston-based site swap.com. "Swapping happens all around us between friends, family and neighbors."

Founded in May of 2010, swap.com has seen its transactions double, from approximately 1.3 million swaps to about 2.67 million so far in 2011. Bennett's site, which mainly swaps goods rather than services, charges participants for the cost of postage but nothing else. Other bartering-specific sites, such as swapmamas.com, have paid and free options.

After sorting through the perverts and spambots, some small-business owners and others looking to trade services for goods or other services have come to use Craigslist.

Melissa Dunn, 31, owner of DuNn Designz in Columbia, says she began bartering as a way to help other local businesses while hers grew. Through Craigslist, Dunn has found graphic design, web design, social media and marketing gigs around Delaware, Maryland and Virginia. Her most recent bartering interaction, she says, saved each side at least $1,500.

"I have tried other bartering sites with no luck as the websites were new and they just did not have enough foot traffic in our area," Dunn said in an email. "However, Craigslist is a free, valuable, and well known resource. Bartering on Craigslist has been very successful for myself and my clients."

Baltimore native Ethan Giffin, a consultant and CEO of Groove Commerce, an ecommerce firm in Canton, recognizes the growing force of bartering on the online level. However, he points to two elements that he says online communities have neglected.

"First, you have to still put the revenue earned from bartering on the books," Giffin said from his own experiences. "You also have to have a clear set of deliverables on both sides. I have bartered three or four times in the past with businesses that I respect and trust. Sometimes with great results, other times not.

"The major factor in this success was making sure both sides had clear expectations. You can't go into it thinking that you will be able to cut corners when servicing the other party."

Once a full-time photographer, Laurie DeWitt is doing one-off assignments while she goes back to school. Despite several attempts, the Fallston resident says she has had only one successful Craigslist transaction, in which she received crown moulding installation in her living room for a family photo session.

"People don't seem to take trading seriously," she says. "It's like they think it's not legit or maybe they aren't sure how they can ensure they don't give a service without getting a service back.

"I have had people email me and say they're interested in trading, but then they never call back or respond," said DeWitt, who says she has had trouble finding goods or services comparable to the value of work she offers.

Despite complaining that, "If I want something done, I'm just going to have to pay for it," DeWitt's is still posting ads on Craigslist, still looking for that next good trade.

Despite the unfortunate stories, companies like DuNn Designz and Dreamteam Ink have seen major growth in tough economic times.

Young entrepreneurs like Dunn and Joseph are able to pursue their dreams as artists, rather than being cemented to a cubicle. Not to mention, it helps pays the bills.

"I pay my mechanic in tattoos," Joseph said.

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