In Barter Nation, Old Forms of Commerce Are New Again
BY John Gerzema
In the new New Economy, consumers are embracing barter and other ancient forms of commerce.
SCRATCH MY BACK AND I'LL SCRATCH YOURS: Through so-called Time Banks, consumers can trade one service (say, piano class) for another (French lessons.)
In the post-financial crisis age, mindless consumption is out, and mindful consumption is in. Eighty-one percent of Americans according to my firm's research say the recent economic crisis has had a long-term effect on the way they spend their time and money. One example of this shift is the phenomenon of cooperative consumerism, in which social business models help American households avoid parting with their hard earned dollars.
Instead of buying, for example, consumers are engaging in new and increasingly sophisticated renting and borrowing systems that represent a kind of innovative community commerce. In many cases, these arrangements are designed to scale an individual's purchasing power. Witness the growth of Time Banks, where the currency traded is time, instead of money. Let's say you're a piano teacher. You can donate hours of piano lessons in exchange for French lessons from another member in the community. No money changes hands, just skills.
And why buy, when you can borrow? BookRenter in San Mateo, California, is based on the insight that everybody has a seventy-five dollar calculus 200 textbook in their basement. Then there's NeighborGoods, a website based in Los Angeles that answers the question "Do I really need to own a table saw?" A user can simply enter his or her zip code on the website in order to swap or rent bikes, tools, and lawnmowers.
A few new start-ups I'm following even help you make money off your purchases. WhipCar in London and Relay Rides in Boston help you rent out your car. Another interesting project is Empty Miles, which saves money for companies through collaborative logistics. In the U.S., 25 percent of all trucks on the nation's highways are 'dead-heading'—that is, traveling empty. By using geolocation technology, companies can match vehicles and shipments, thus saving money and the environment.
In our new book Spend Shift, Michael D'Antonio and I visited a community where residents actually created their own legal tender. Berkshares (named after the Berkshires in Western Massachusetts) began in 2006 when a handful of businesspeople and community boosters in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, tried to help local retailers, restaurants, and service people survive competition from national chains that were moving into small mountain towns. The bills were designed with pictures of local citizens such as Norman Rockwell and Herman Melville and W.E.B. Du Bois and 100 bills could be purchased for $95, offering a 5 precent discount. And when the great recession hit, the currency kept local merchants in business when credit was scarce.
As Berkshires suggests, the values of community consumerism go beyond saving money. In the new barter economy, it's really about the consumer wanting both value and values. In our research, seventy one percent of American consumers say they now make it a point to buy brands from companies whose values are similar to my own. In Tampa we followed around a 'carrot mob,' which organized to support Kim Phan's small local teashop. A boycott is a stick, but a carrot is an incentive. Kim's commitment to a sustainable business model and support of her community was rewarded with carrots as people spread the word through their meet up group to support Kim's business.
We also interviewed Andrew Mason, founder of Groupon, the explosive Chicago-based business where consumers band together to get lowest prices. Yet Mason told us his vision is about more than saving money. "We're less a modern version of a coupon than a modern version of a city magazine that exposes you to interesting things," he told us.
In the emerging barter nation, households are shifting from consumption to production. They're sharing skills and resources and demanding more from your business. We've just scratched the surface of this movement. Whose to say they can't scale to the power of, say, Walmart?