AS THE HORDES prepare to flood the malls and big box stores with their credit cards for Black Friday, some smart folks checked off their holiday shopping lists early.
The best part? They didn’t have to spend a dime.
Wallets were nowhere to be seen at the NuBarter Holiday Gift and Trade Show last week, where dozens of local businesses and boutiques offered up wares and services. Beautiful handbags, sparkling jewelry and luxury bath items flew off the tables while gift certificates for massages, teeth whitening and more were slipped into envelopes. But instead of using cash or credit cards, shoppers spent the trade dollars they’ve accrued as members of the Savannah–based barter company.
The practice of bartering, or the direct exchange of goods and services without the medium of money, has been around since ancient tribes traded goat milk for chicken eggs. Though there’s no anthropological evidence of a culture based solely on a barter economy, it’s been used over the centuries when folks lacked hard currency or just because it’s a convenient way to buy local.
Organized barter brokerages evolved within small townships in 18th century, evolving into an $8 billion dollar industry in the last decade. Formal barter exchanges have been championed by environmental communities as a way to cut waste and promote conscious consumerism.
Conceived in Savannah, NuBarter is one of hundreds of such commercial exchanges thriving around the country as small businesses look for ways to make the most of resources while conserving their cash.
Here’s how it works: Say you have a warehouse full of last spring’s styles or quiet afternoons at your massage studio. You offer up those extra goods and/or hours that aren’t generating any money to the members of your exchange for face value.
When someone with trade dollars “buys” it, you bank the trade and use it for whatever you like, be it a visit from an electrician or a night on the town. It also works for big tickets items like cars and boats.
“Barter allows people to use their excess capacity as currency,” explained Gary Field, who founded NuBarter in 2002 after turning extra picture framing material into fine meals at restaurants and a trip to Jamaica through another barter exchange. “You’re using what you already have to get what you need.”
Savannah’s exchange includes over 300 local businesses, including boutiques, pet shops, photographers, plumbers, pest control specialists and vacation rentals, but members aren’t limited to trading with the local roster.
As part of the International Reciprocal Trade Association, NuBarter trade dollars can be redeemed all over the world, from hotel rooms in Manhattan to cruises to the Caribbean.
Jessica Kelly, who brought a selection of stylish accessories from her boutique, Twinkle in City Market, is a seven year veteran of Savannah’s local barter community.
She and her husband Joa have taken several trips to the Bahamas on NuBarter dollars and use them to get carpets cleaned, visit the dentist and eat out at their favorite restaurants.
“It’s a smart system,” said Kelly. “I like the idea of networking with local businesses and sharing resources, but it goes so much further than that.”
To maintain a healthy business, some economists and business consultants advocate building up a 10 percent barter capacity, says Field. Many employers use the trade as bonuses and incentives for employees as a way to keep morale high during challenging economic times.
With her NuBarter membership just days old, Shoshanna Walker was making brisk trade at the holiday trade show with her handmade soaps and other natural products from her store Nourish on Broughton Street.
“I’m excited to have all this trade with local business because I’m always looking to treat my employees,” said Walker as she filled out a NuBarter trade certificate, which works like a check that deducts from the signer’s trade account. “Plus, as a business owner, you don’t always want to spend money on yourself, but this makes it so you have to.”
Other local business owners are quickly figuring out the benefits of barter.
“This really works out well for me because it goes both ways” said Scott Miller, owner of the Ogeechee River Coffee Company, who joined up six months ago. “I’m making some good local business connections, and I’ve also picked up some nice gifts. I’ve got a New York hotel room covered for a trip next month.”
As the economy continues to fumble, there’s been no shortage of companies interested in the barter concept.
“CEOs and owners are getting that it’s a good idea to be part of a commercial barter exchange,” continues Field, who has opened markets in Hilton Head, Sarasota and Boca Raton and is currently launching NuBarter Atlanta. “It’s not meant to replace cash, but it’s a great supplement.”
The greater Savannah territory, which includes businesses from Chatham, Effingham and Bryan counties, is owned and managed by Jacquie Stein, who took it over from Field two years ago.
“It’s just the coolest thing,” enthused Stein as she admired everyone’s tables. “I love the network that’s evolving here and seeing the connections being made. People are happy to trade what they have because it can ease the financial stress of spending cash.”
As Stein mingled with shoppers, many of whom were vendors themselves, it’s evident that relationships are created with this barter system that wouldn’t always come about using the anonymity of cash.
And while big retailers are biting their collective nails to see whether Black Friday yields the cash flow to make investors happy, the small businesses of Savannah are feeling optimistic about the upcoming season.
“Look at this, I’m already set for Christmas gifts and I get to keep my money,” said Miller, holding up three giant bags of merchandise. “Now I can relax and enjoy the holidays.”