When the check arrives at the Patpong Thai restaurant in Chingford, England, Reg Burrows usually pays with plastic. But Burrows, the owner of an industrial-storage-supply firm, doesn't pull out Visa or American Express. He pulls out Bartercard. As a member of the Bartercard trading network, Burrows receives "trade pounds" instead of cash whenever his firm, Global Equipment Trading, works for fellow Bartercard clients. He can then spend that credit at any of the 75,000 member businesses around the world, including Patpong Thai, where he frequently entertains clients. So far this year, Burrows has exchanged around $410,000 in goods and services, helping to offset expenses and keep cash available for other outgoings. "Using barter we've purchased everything from air-conditioning units, computers and desks, to lorries, forklifts and security gates," he says. "It's a phenomenal tool that can enhance almost any company."
As businesses battle to get through the recession, more and more are turning to third-party-exchange networks like Bartercard. According to the International Reciprocal Trade Association, the industry trade body, more than 400,000 businesses transacted $10 billion globally in 2008 and officials expect trade volume to grow by 15% in 2009. Bartercard, the world's largest exchange network, is leading the charge. So far this year trades through its network are worth more than $2 billion, up by 20% over 2008. Founded in Australia in 1991, when the country was mired in recession, the firm now does business in nine countries including New Zealand, Sri Lanka, Thailand and the United Arab Emirates and boasts clients as diverse as advertising firms, electricians, hotels, paper suppliers, restaurants, translators and even zoos.
Barter, of course, isn't new: firms routinely arrange exchanges on their own. But cultivating those relationships takes time and presents numerous hurdles. "Many direct-barter transactions don't succeed outside of our network because businesses have to match one another in timing and interest," says Wayne Sharpe, Bartercard's founder and chief executive. While a restaurant owner may need $10,000 worth of printing services in the next week, it's unlikely that any printshop owner will need the $10,000 worth of fish and chips that the restaurant can provide in return. "With our service, the transaction is complete," Sharpe says. "The restaurant owes $10,000 to the network, not to the printer."
Bartercard's bank-like system which includes monthly statements and an interest-free line of credit also provides security and accountability that informal bartering can't. Members must pass a credit check and sign a contract pledging to deliver goods in a timely manner. In terms of barter rates, a service that costs $600 is equivalent to 600 trade pounds; members constantly police one another, ensuring that their advertised barter rates match the rates they charge the public.
Members are not obliged to accept barter clients all the time. "There are times of the year when our hotel is full and we know we can generate cash payments," says Stephen Hill, the owner of the 24-bedroom Hotel Penzance in Cornwall, southwest England. "There are other times when we can't and that's when Bartercard comes into its own." Whenever Hill has unfilled rooms, he places an appeal for barter business on Bartercard's online site or through the firm's brokerages there are currently 100 offices around the world to help connect members. If the hotel is 70% full, the cost of filling an otherwise empty room is virtually nothing. Plus, it brings in customers who may return to the hotel in the future and spend cash. Hill, who trades roughly $100,000 a year through the service, uses his credit to pay the hotel's $650-a-month flower bill, and recently refurnished eight of the hotel's rooms without spending a penny. He's also purchased jewelry through barter and then resold it to hotel guests for a profit. The system works for personal use, too. Hill's wife has spent the hotel's barter credits on cosmetic dental work and perms, and the family recently went on a ski holiday in France on barter pounds.
All that trading means more profit for Bartercard. The privately held company charges a one-time membership fee $1,200 to $2,400, depending on the size of the business and a 5.5% cash and 1% trade fee on each transaction. Sharpe is confident the firm will continue to expand even as the economy improves. "Companies will need to hire new staff and restart advertising and marketing campaigns which they pulled during the recession," he says. "Bartering frees up cash for that." It's a concept he obviously believes in: the firm uses its trade credits to pay the rent on its U.K. headquarters.