finance

A barter way of life: Covid crisis fuels swapping of goods and skills


It all started as a way of getting hold of items such as flour, yeast and eggs – and even toilet rolls – that were in high demand at the start of coronavirus outbreak after many began panic-buying, leaving shelves empty. But for some, the swapping of goods has continued since those frantic few weeks.

Exchanges of everything from food to plants are going on through dedicated Facebook pages such as Barter United Kingdom, which has more than 1,300 members, WhatsApp groups and the neighbourhood hub app Nextdoor.

Rachel Mills, 39, a freelance writer and editor who lives in Ramsgate, Kent, started bartering through a local Library of Things Facebook group that was set up during lockdown. In May she swapped a pair of jeans for a large picture frame, while on the day I speak to her she is picking up a collection of Goosebumps children’s horror fiction books in return for a houseplant she propagated from one of her own.

“It’s saving money and waste, especially plastic and all the unnecessary packaging, but you’re also getting to know people in your community,” she says. “Though I want to be careful not to swap things just to accumulate more stuff. The Goosebumps books are my first Christmas purchase-not-purchase as my plan is to try to shop differently this year.”

Marjorie Dunne, 53, a nurse living in London, joined the Facebook group Barter United Kingdom after her friend Laisani Georgie set it up in April. “I was having a big clear-out and thought: ‘What am I going to do with it all?’ I thought it might be useful if someone else could have it and I could exchange for something else.”

In return for clothes and kitchen items, she received food such as curries and rotis from local people. “It helped me as I was recovering from Covid-19 and wasn’t able to do any cooking. But what we’ve seen now is people having discussions away from the group with people they’ve swapped with previously.”

Martina Mercer, 41, a freelance PR and marketing consultant living in Devon, began bartering at the start of lockdown when everyone was panic-buying. “I’m a single mum with three children and no support – I have friends but couldn’t see them due to guidelines and couldn’t take the children all shopping with me or leave them alone. Some people in the village also couldn’t find what they needed in the shops as the shelves were bare, so I set up a free stall with duck eggs, chicken eggs, vegetables from the garden and other new items I had a surplus of such as disinfectant wipes.”

Martina Mercer
Martina Mercer set up a free stall in her village in Devon. Photograph: Martina Mercer

The stall was originally held outside the local pub but they soon switched to communicating through a Facebook group. Since the outbreak, Mercer has traded equipment for her chickens such as heat lamps and pens, and newspapers for her daughter’s papier-mache project, in return for items such as paint, cabbage plants, flowers and yeast. She says the local village hall has also held a plant-swapping event. “It feels good to help people but also you receive what you need while the other person benefits, too. It’s a win-win. I’ve met some lovely people and made some great friends. I really do feel like part of the community now.”

Professor David Hillier, an associate principal and executive dean at Strathclyde Business School, says that as money and coins became the preferred medium of exchange, bartering retreated into the background “but it has always existed and is making a resurgence in response to Covid-19”.

Nick Lisher at the neighbourhood app Nextdoor says that since the start of lockdown he has seen members supporting each other in their communities. “While Nextdoor members can use the For Sale & Free function on the app to sell or give away goods, we regularly see book swaps set up and plant exchanges.”

Bartering isn’t only limited to things such as yeast and plants. With many small companies struggling since the outbreak of the coronavirus, some are finding alternative ways of working with fellow business owners without exchanging a single penny.

Business bartering – or simply exchanging skills and services – appears to have become more widespread across the UK as entrepreneurs look to find different ways to improve their business as companies’ finances take a hit as a result of Covid-19.

Emma Venables
Emma Venables from Weston-super-Mare has turned to swapping skills. Photograph: Emma Venables

Many are swapping skills through Facebook groups. Emma Venables, 36, a graphic designer from Weston-super-Mare, has been involved in two skills swaps via the Bristol Small Business Network Facebook page since the outbreak. Her first swap involved receiving help with a contract from a company specialising in contracts, risk management and disputes in return for one of her ebooks on creating leads on LinkedIn.

“It was massively beneficial to me as a small business,” she says. “The legal side of things was certainly something I knew I needed to look at to protect my business and the skill swap allowed me to do that without worrying about finances first.”

The second swap involved Venables offering her graphic design services to a Spanish theatre school in Bristol in exchange for Spanish tutoring via Zoom. “It’s allowed me to pick up an old hobby in the midst of all the chaos,” says Venables, who is looking to exchange her skills with a web developer to help her with a software system.

She says skill-swapping can be a great way for two parties to exchange tools and resources that you might not otherwise have had or been able to justify the budget for.

Elliss Stevens of Kindtrader
Elliss Stevens of Kindtrader, a barter exchange startup. Photograph: Kindtrader

Kindtrader, an e-commerce and barter exchange startup, says membership inquiries have tripled since the Covid-19 outbreak. “The phone has been ringing a lot more, with businesses interested in finding a creative and exchange-based way of continuing to trade,” says the founder, Elliss Stevens.

“One of the areas we’ve seen boom in popularity during the pandemic is ‘time barters’. We’ve seen people advertise space in exchange for unsold event tickets, a company offer surplus stock in exchange for spare office space, and someone trade legal advice in exchange for logo/brand design.”

How Kindtrader works
How Kindtrader works. Photograph: Kindtrader

For Dom Bridges, the founder of the natural fragrance and skincare brand Haeckels, business bartering is nothing new. The Margate entrepreneur started swapping skills in the community for one day as part of the Extinction Rebellion protests more than a year ago. “I wanted to communicate how we can become more collective and look at how businesses can work and survive without taking money.” Bridges says he was “quite amazed” by the response. “We swapped products in return for cookery lessons, someone fixed the company car and we received yoga lessons.” Still, he admits that he soon realised that bartering “wasn’t going to feed us all as much as making money would”.

He has also held a bartering day in protest at the consumerism surrounding Black Friday. Successful swaps involved an accountant offering to handle the books for a year in return for products, and partnering with Jo Miller, a local sound therapist, who created the backdrop to one of Haeckels treatments and in return produced her own incense in the lab. “She didn’t have to buy something in and received a unique experience. It was a pretty good trade.”

Hillier believes that, given the financial crisis emerging because of the pandemic, we are likely to see a greater resurgence in bartering, especially given technological advances. “New cloud-based barter platforms will allow bartering companies and individuals to find a common location to trade and, like so many other business sectors, the move to online modes of engagement will see bartering become more common as a niche method of exchange,” he says.



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