Bartering Opens New Doors for Sellers

Use the oldest transaction system to streamline your costs and grow your business.

by staff writer
- Nov 09, 2009

When Auctiva Product Analyst Rebecca Miller needed a haircut, she decided to take a chance on a trend she'd recently caught wind of, just to see the outcome. But her experiment didn't involve heading to the salon for a new do; instead, she headed to her computer and posted an ad on Craigslist.

"I had heard something on the news that bartering was back," she recalls.

She wasn't mistaken.

Thousands of people visit sites such as Craigslist, ClothingSwap, SwapTree, U-Exchange and others to get the goods and services they need without having to fork over cash. Craigslist reports that bartering ads on its sites have doubled in the past year, a fact company officials attribute to the deteriorating economy.

But small business operators are also taking advantage of the world's oldest transaction system to save money. In fact, about 400,000 businesses use the barter system, resulting in more than $3 billion in transactions every year, reports the Better Business Bureau.

Miller wasn't sure her ad would get any takers—or, for that matter, what she could offer in return for a new do. Most people were bartering for services such as yard work, or offering similar services. But to her surprise, she received multiple responses in a matter of hours. One woman said she would cut and color Miller's hair in exchange for help setting up a yard sale.

It was a perfect match, considering Miller's background in selling yard sale finds on eBay! And the experience made Miller—known in the eBay community as bertthedog—realize that other experienced sellers could use the good ol' barter system to put some slack back into their tight budgets.

Sales on eBay have been slow, Miller says, so knowing where to trim costs is more important than ever. Here are a few ways online sellers can use the barter system to their advantage:

Bartering is a great way to find new inventory and get rid of excess or left-over seasonal items

Refresh inventory

Bartering is a great way to find new inventory and get rid of excess or left-over seasonal items. Several barter sites specialize in particular niches. For example, Rehash specializes in clothing. But you're not limited to swapping your clothes to get new inventory for your online business. Although the site's homepage says people trade textbooks or clothes for other items of clothing, many users "covet" hats, accessories or indicate they just want "another item." You can find a variety of items for men, women and children here, including vintage pieces.

Items on this site come with descriptions, size and condition, and specify what people are looking for in return for their clothes. The site's free to use, so you might as well make an offer or post your pieces. Who knows, you might even get some takers for that old Christmas sweater that's taking up space in your closet.

There are also sites where users can trade for music, DVDs and video games. SwapTree is one such site, so if you sell media goods, this is the place for you. And don't think you're only going to find old, unwanted items here. One recent trade was for the movie "Yes, Man," which came out late last year.

eBay doesn't allow bartering or trades on its marketplace platform. However, if you're looking for something specific, it's worth posting a "want ad" in the Want It Now area.

If you can't find a barter site that specializes in your type of goods, do what Miller did and head to Craigslist. With users publishing more than 40 million new ads every month and 50 million people browsing the site, you stand a reasonable chance of finding what you're looking for—or if you're looking to swap something, your ad should get plenty of exposure.

Building relationships and good customer service are just as important in the barter system as they are when money is changing hands

Reach new audiences

If there's one thing you can never have too much of, it's potential buyers. Although you might think people who barter aren't looking for items to buy, often they are. They may not be looking to purchase goods at that particular moment when they're looking to swap a book for a shirt-but they will need to buy goods at some point. Being on their turf, or on their barter site, will let them become familiar with you and your items.

Many sites allow "swappers" to post mini-profiles about themselves. These profiles are great places to tell your fellow barterers about yourself and your store or listings. Be sure to include a link in case they get curious and want to check out your items. You don't want to push your store on the swapping community, but a link is inoffensive. A passing mention of a promotion you may have is also acceptable.

Remember that building relationships and good customer service are just as important in the barter system as they are when money is changing hands. Therefore, always treat your fellow barterers well. Reply to their inquiries in a timely manner, thank them for swapping with you and be receptive to them. That way when they need to buy something in your niche, they'll be more likely to think of you.

Get what you need

Don't forget that bartering can still do what it was intended to do, long before eBay or the Internet were around: It can help you get items or services without having to pay for them. If you need some yard work done, you could do what Miller did—offer in exchange your online selling expertise to help the other person sell some of their items. Knowing how to sell online—not to mention what to sell, and for how much—is a valuable skill you've worked hard to perfect. Why not use it as your own form of currency?

Non-sellers might unwittingly let high-value items go for a few bucks at a yard sale. As an experienced seller, however, you're more likely to spot a big-ticket item, or know when more research is warranted to find the true value of an item. Reminding people of this could work to your advantage.

And if the person you're bartering with just wants a tangible item to trade, you could always offer something from your inventory.

No cash is exchanged. And when you're not spending money, you're saving money

Reduce costs

Let's not forget what sets this system apart from others: No cash is exchanged; instead you trade items or services. And when you're not spending money, you're saving money. That's a big relief during a time when many eBayers are experiencing slow sales. On one eBay discussion forum, a seller notes he was "cooking along, and then sales all but dried up." If you find yourself in a similar situation, you may want to give this whole barter thing a shot.

Be careful when you're working out the barter details, though. While the normal barter sites seem fairly safe, if you're posting an ad on Craigslist, don't forget about safety. The BBB offers business advice for people thinking of bartering in this article. Here are a few personal-safety tips:

  • Have people leave their e-mail addresses or phone numbers when they respond to your ad. Don't give people access to your personal information.
  • After talking with potential swappers, meet them in a public place to talk further about the barter. Don't meet them at their house or any other private location.
  • Make sure you are both on the same page and agree that the items being swapped are of equal value in your eyes. This will prevent future frustrations.

Now barter away and see the treasures you can get without having to spend a penny!

About the Author

Auctiva staff writers constantly monitor trends and best practices of those selling on eBay and elsewhere online. They attend relevant training seminars and trade shows and regularly discuss the market with PowerSellers and other market experts.

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