Barter boom: Swapping sex toys for plumbing

At a barter network's annual holiday show and trade expo, business owners gather to grow their sales by swapping.

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By Jennifer Lawinski, CNNMoney.com contributing writer

barter.jpg
100 business owners turned out to swap at Barter Business Unlimited's trade show this week.
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A jeweler's table displays some of the wares up for barter.
The no-cash economy
Beer, lingerie, ad space and high-end electronics were some of the offerings business owners put up for swap at this week's Barter Business Unlimited holiday trade show.
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The barter business
In a tough economy, more small business owners are conserving cash by bartering. The U.S. boasts some 500 barter exchanges - here's a sampling of established and reputable outfits.

BRISTOL, Conn. (CNNMoney.com) -- Short on cash? Join the new old economy and swap.

"There's no recession in barter," said Debbie Lombardi as she navigated the crowd at the Barter Business Unlimited's Annual Business & Holiday Barter Show, held Thursday in Bristol, Conn.

More than 1,000 people affiliated with 100 vendors of all kinds packed into a hotel event space to wheel and deal and trade their wares. As Lombardi, the event's host, worked the floor, dozens of small business owners stopped her to ask questions. One owns a bicycle shop. One is a longtime friend and jewelry-store owner. One sells lingerie and sex toys.

It's the newly popular return to the old "it take a village" way of doing business.

The barter show functions in its own cash-free world --- like a high-tech Burning Man. Members have cards linked to accounts of "trade dollars" which they can spend on anything on offer from businesses in the barter network.

In her 25 years in the barter business, Lombardi said she's seen doctors trade their services for delivering twins and for vasectomies. She's seen people trade for facelifts and for funerals. And things have picked up steam in the one year she's operated Barter Business Unlimited.

"The technology has made it easier to barter," Lombardi said. The recession has helped things along, too: "People are really just looking for business right now."

Ted Rahaim, owner of DBK Family Jewelers in Plainville, Conn., said that bartering has been a great way for him to get things for his small business that he wouldn't be able to afford if he had to shell out the cash -- like advertising.

He came to the show expecting to barter $30,000 to $40,000 worth of jewelry. He didn't know what he'd be trading for, but he did pick up one case of meat. In the past he's bartered for business needs, including business cards and plumbing and heating services for his stores.

"It opens up a lot of doors for me," he said.

With the woes of the media industry making news almost daily, Mike Schroeder, publisher of the New Britain Herald and Bristol Press, had a rare success story. He picked up six new advertisers at the show.

In return, the newspapers bartered for about 60% of the work needed to move its corporate offices. Schroeder estimated.

"We have found that a lot of the best businesses we've worked with were on barter," he said.

Farmington River Brewing Company managing member Bill Hodkin has used the barter world to network his way into new client relationships. "There are a lot of customers I wouldn't normally come in front of," he said.

Like Undercover Wear, a 32-year-old lingerie and "romantic accessories" business run by Angel Johnstone. To pay the plumber, she trades skimpy satin undergarments, tasteful adult toys and other unmentionables for "adult eyes only" (delicately covered at the show with a black cloth).

By bartering for household expenses that would otherwise drain her coffers, she's able to keep the cash money flowing into her business.

But Gary Maples, owner of London Clocks in Brattleboro, Vt., cautions small business owners looking to build through barter that the temptation to spend barter bucks on vacations or household expenses won't help you grow your bottom line.

London Clocks barters its high-end clocks for warehouse space and other business needs. Through barter, Maples produced a much more opulent catalog for London Clocks than he would have been able to if he had been paying cash.

"The biggest mistake people make is they use it for their personal wishes," Maples said. "None of that will get you anything for your business." To top of page

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