Best of the Web
Barter Web sites differ widely in inventory, ease of use, and customer service. Choosing one involves some trade-offs
For a few years running, Jim Green would pick up the phone, hear Bret Wyatt's voice on the other end of the line, and know he was getting a job. Wyatt was a broker working for Itex, one of the nation's largest barter exchanges. Whenever an Itex member needed something built or remodeled, Wyatt would call Green, president of $1-million JP Construction, in Sacramento. The customer would pay JP Construction in Itex's currency, which Green would then use to buy goods or services from other Itex members.
It was a fruitful arrangement for Green, bringing new business in while preventing cash from flowing out. Then one day Wyatt called not to offer Green work but to point him toward Bigvine.com, a Web-based barter exchange that had hired Wyatt as a manager. (Bigvine doesn't use brokers.) Green joined the Web site's trading network by completing an online form and tucked his company listing into the "Construction and Renovation" category. Within a week a Bigvine member asked him to paint a commercial building. After scouting the location, Green agreed to do the job for 12,000 Bigvine dollars, which he later exchanged for business and personal items, including two computers (1,400 trade dollars) and a hot tub (5,000 trade dollars).
Green found Bigvine's savings alluring. The company collects a commission of 3% to 4% from both buyers and sellers, compared with Itex's 5%. In addition, Bigvine charges neither an entry fee nor dues, whereas Itex charges from $795 to $995 to join and $30 every four weeks thereafter. Green also liked the freedom of going brokerless. "On the Web I can make someone an offer right away, without going through a middleman," he says. And while Green is still an Itex member, he finds himself using Bigvine more and more.
Bigvine isn't the only swap shop online: a number of Web-based exchanges of varying content and procedural stripes have emerged in the past two years, offering everything from advertising services and catering to file cabinets and telephone systems. Those exchanges include BarterTrust.com, which uses human brokers to complete trades, iSolve.com, which specializes in inventory management, and TargetBarter.com, a consumer-to-consumer site. To help readers choose where to ply their trades, Inc. asked 20 small-company CEOs to evaluate six barter sites on criteria such as inventory, pricing, and ease of use. Here are their findings.
What it's good for: People who need people. Unlike the other companies whose sites were reviewed, BarterTrust.com requires members to work with a human broker after they identify desirable trades online. The company's founder, Mike Edelhart, says that human-mediated barter offers big advantages over the automated variety found on other sites. But our CEOs say they prefer the immediacy of a wholly Web-based transaction.
Don't waste your time if: You want to check prices online. At least for now, members rely on BarterTrust's 50 brokers for prices as well as transactions. The panel gave the thumbs-down to that extra step. "It's possible there are some deals here, but it would be a waste of my time to hunt them down," said one reviewer.
What our CEOs had to say: Even if you prefer the human touch of BarterTrust, you won't enjoy signing up for the company's service. In a typical comment, one CEO lamented the "byzantine intricacies of the application and enrollment process."
What you ought to know: BarterTrust charges a onetime joining fee of $99 and 99BT$ (a BT$ is a unit of BarterTrust's own currency), a transaction fee of 5% levied on both buyers and sellers, and a monthly fee of $15 plus 15BT$.
What it's good for: Bartering rookies. Panelists gave the site an A+ for ease of use; no other company did better than a B+ in that category. Bigvine's intuitive interface and detailed information chased away any lurking fears of Web barter. "I liked the layout and the look and feel, which made me feel better about using their services," said one CEO.
Don't waste your time if: You're looking for deficiencies. The only feature our CEOs said the site lacked -- a feedback area where users rate vendors -- was being added at press time.
What our CEOs had to say: "Professional" was a common description of Bigvine's appearance and content. Panelists also smiled on the site's toll-free number, which befuddled traders can call from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekdays and from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. on weekends, Pacific time.
What you ought to know: Bigvine collects a 4% commission from both buyers and sellers on transactions of less than 5,000T$ (BigVine trade dollars), and a 3% commission on transactions of more than 5,000T$.
What it's good for: People who prize customer service. The CEOs raved about iSolve's interactive chat feature connecting users with iSolve employees known as NetReps. "The time between question and answer was about 15 seconds, and the answer was to the point," said one impressed panelist.
Don't waste your time if: You're trying to fill a shopping cart, not a truck. "I saw a digital clock for $4. I thought, Hey, I'll get four of them and give them away as Xmas gifts. Then I saw a minimum order, and it was set at $20,000," reported one reviewer.
What our CEOs had to say: Several wished that iSolve's inventory contained more services. The company is positioned as a provider of "inventory-management solutions" and consequently deals almost exclusively in products. There were also calls for a less consumer-centric mix: iSolve's chief categories are Automotive, Food and Beverage, Health and Beauty, and General Merchandise.
What you ought to know: ISolve takes a 10% commission from the seller only for each transaction.
What it's good for: Traders who want to be eased into the process. Our CEOs found LassoBucks.com easy to use. And they loved the offer of 100 free barter dollars (called, not surprisingly, LassoBucks) as an incentive to start bartering.
Don't waste your time if: You're looking for exhaustive inventory. Many of our CEOs found the site's offerings less than inspiring. Some suggested that the free LassoBucks might be part of the problem. In order to get them, users must post something of their own to trade, possibly resulting in listings from "members who do not really take the site seriously," suggested one panelist.
What our CEOs had to say: The LassoBucks site fared poorly on customer service, offering little in the way of online help or phone support. "Clicking on the 'Contact Us' link led the user not to a phone number but to the company's FAQ, which is not an FAQ at all but a comprehensive explanation of online bartering," reported one CEO. (The E-mail addresses of certain departments are also listed.) Another panelist complained about having to become a member to search the inventory, something that's not required by the other sites.
What you ought to know: LassoBucks charges both buyers and sellers a 5% fee for each transaction.
What it's good for: Someone shopping for the family: TargetBarter is a consumer-to-consumer company. "I would probably go to a site like this for home or personal items," said one CEO.
Don't waste your time if: You care about smooth surfing. Few CEOs wanted to return after struggling with a site they called "not well designed." They did award high marks, however, to TargetBarter's customer service.
What our CEOs had to say: Some complained about "vague" or "long-winded" product descriptions. "The site will have to enable visitors to better evaluate the quality of products and services," said one.
What you ought to know: TargetBarter charges buyers a 10% fee for each transaction over $25. For purchases of $25 or less the customer is charged $2.50. New members receive a $250 line of credit if they post a trade.
What it's good for: People who like options: Ubarter.com's inventory was ranked second only to Bigvine's. Still, there was some damning with faint praise: the CEOs used words like "adequate" and "decent" to describe Ubarter's listings. And it did not receive a grade higher than a B in any category.
What our CEOs had to say: Besides tripping privacy alarms, Ubarter's registration process was arduous, according to the panelists, with "six separate screens in which they ask for credit-card information," reported one CEO. "Yet they don't give you all the specifics until the last screen."
What you ought to know: Ubarter charges buyers and sellers a 5% fee for each transaction.
The bottom line
Our panelists proclaimed Bigvine the big winner among Web-based bartering sites. The company got the best grade given in every category. On average, BarterTrust scored at the bottom. Our CEOs dismissed the site because they didn't like its model -- a Web and human hybrid. But others may find the assistance of human brokers to be valuable.
The panelists liked using iSolve but felt it was too skewed toward large-volume deals to be of practical use to them; they also complained about the lack of service offerings. Ubarter had the opposite problem: good inventory but a bad registration process. LassoBucks was welcoming and user-friendly, but panelists were unimpressed with the quality of some of the listings. And TargetBarter suffered from design problems, although the CEOs gave it a B+ for customer service and applauded its "knowledgeable" phone representatives.
Ilan Mochari is a reporter at Inc.
The Savvy Entrepreneur's Guide to Bartering on the Web
|Would our CEOs go back?||What is the site good for?||CEOs' quick take|
|www.bartertrust.com||"Probably not."||"Not much."||"Too expensive and not enough information."|
|www.bigvine.com||"Yes. The site's forthright and thought out."||"Gives confidence to those new to bartering."||"Easy to navigate and looked very professional."|
|www.isolve.com||"No. The minimums are too high."||"Excellent customer service."||"Not for small guys like me."|
|www.lassobucks.com||"Only to use my free LassoBucks."||"Quite easy to use."||"Not enough offerings."|
|www.targetbarter.com||"No. It feels amateurish."||"Individuals rather than businesses."||"Needs to put some work into its interface."|
|www.ubarter.com||"No. It's laborious to register."||"Allows you to search without being a member."||"I was concerned that the FAQ warns, 'Buyer Beware!' "|
|Ease of use||Inventory||Security/
|Customer service||Pricing||Value delivered for price||Average grade|
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