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Barter, the world's oldest form of commerce, has come of age in the 1990s. The stock image of wheeler-dealers working the phones no longer reflects the sophistication of today's... er, middlemen, if you will. Instead, for the 20 or so major brokers, deals can take months to structure; dollar values average $1 million but have topped $25 million; and computers track convoluted transactions that take years to complete and can involve dozens of companies trading an unlimited variety of goods and services.
And whether it's the lingering economic recession, tighter bank credit, a shortage of cash in corporate treasuries, or the all-too-common problem of excess inventory, barter activity is stronger than ever.
"Barter is a problem-solver," says Bill Levitz, senior vice president of Atwood Richards, the oldest barter company in the world, which has offices in the United States and 17 other countries. The company counts over one-third of the Fortune 500 among its 200 clients, and has seen its revenues grow at 15 percent to 20 percent annually over the past five years.
"Whatever it is--surplus or seasonal inventory, a discontinued line, canceled orders, store returns--you can trade it, rather than liquidate it, and recover the value that has been lost," Levitz says. A majority of barter deals involve some form of media--advertising time or pages--that trading companies have bought at a discount and offer for credit.
Here's a typical trade. Playtex wanted to change the packaging on a line of hair-care products under its Jhirmack label and had to get rid of its stock in the old packaging. So it traded hundreds of thousands of cases for $26.5 million worth of advertising, with the barter company agreeing to unload the goods in the Middle East and Africa.
This way, the old inventory won't show up on Wal-Mart shelves at bargain-basement prices just as the new inventory (the same product in new packaging) is arriving at full price. Playtex expects to take about three years to use up its advertising credits.
"Media is the currency of larger trades," says Bill Steinberg, president of Tradewell Industries, the New York-based barter company that put …