Is a Barter System a Thing of the Past at Retail?
Surprisingly barter has never actually disappeared. When we’re busy creating new cryptocurrencies and ways of paying for things, it seems like we’re heading into a completely virtual world. But actually, just like with everything else happening in technology, as strong currents push us toward the digital, other currents are pulling us back into old ways of doing things: the Maker Movement drawing us back into handcrafts, for example, and the global economy pushing the growth of a barter system.
What Did People First Barter With?
Whenever people talk about the history of a barter system, it usually involves food: One person pays a dozen eggs and a loaf of bread for shoeing their horse, for example. Food makes sense to barter because, if you grow food, you can only consume so much and the rest must either be preserved, sold, or bartered away.
People Still Trade With Food Today
A lot of community supported agriculture gardens, for example, trade a box full of vegetables for a certain number of hours of labor weeding or planting in the garden. In Oakland, there’s a neighborhood crop swap where people growing produce in their backyard trade with their neighbors. Portland, Oregon has a bigger trading post called PDX Food Swap (and there’s one in Austin and another in San Fransisco) where dozens of people bring homemade foods and trade with one another.
As a Rolling Stone article said:
The offerings were staggering and as delicious as anything you’d find in an upscale market: smoked salmon, pineapple habanero hot sauce, pickled watermelon rinds. “We’re basically a cashless bartering society,” explains one of its creator’s Bethany Rydmark.
Economies Can’t Rely Soley on A Bartering System
The trouble is, a barter system has always been difficult to measure: Is it a fair trade? Most history books argue the question of what necessitated the creation of currency in the first place. One Atlantic Monthly article contends that battering alone is well-established fiction. Barter is just one form of an economic system among many. Some societies, the piece argues, had gifting economies. If you knew someone needed something—like food, you just gave it to them. That was superior to barter, the article argues because barter actually forces humans to be less generous and inappropriately place value on items. This may have actually contributed to the growth of slavery.
Whether or not that’s the case, barter continues to be a way people and even countries transact business today. There is barter among businesses: the accountant does the massage therapist’s taxes in exchange for a couple of hours of relaxing massage. People barter goods and services on sites like Craigslist. Countries do deals all the time trading goods and services to secure agreements.
Going Forward Will Businesses Still Barter?
In fact, many business trends—blockchain, buy local, the “sharing” economy and the push to reduce packaging—seem to indicate that the future of retail may be at least partially about neighbors trading things they have with one another rather than everything being a slick commercial transaction through banks and payment systems.
The question is, what role can retailers envision for themselves in that future world? Farmer’s market in the parking lot? Trading locally grown spinach for distantly grown coffee? Now might be the perfect time for retailers to imagine how their store could become an integral part of the local bartering community.
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