Better than Buying: Barter Economy Matures from Niche to Trend

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Companies will now have to tailor their products and services to this segment of consumers without harming their own business models. This is precisely what some businesses are already doing today. For instance, it seemed logical that the rental car company Avis acquired America's largest car-sharing company, Zipcar, for $550 million last week. Another example is Obi, a German chain of home improvement markets. Under the name MietProfi, or rent pro, it operates a franchise rental service for machines and tools in more than 160 stores. Although the people who use the service no longer buy machines and tools, it does bring in business, and customers are at least buying the nails, screws and sanding paper at Obi instead of the competition.

Even a giant like Daimler is adjusting to the change. car2go is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the southern German carmaker and part of its "mobility concept." The rental Smart models are available 24/7 in 18 cities worldwide. Seattle was added to the list in mid-December 2012. Users pay for use by the minute, using smartphone apps or the Internet to find and reserve vehicles, either spontaneously or with advance reservations. The rental fee of 29 cents a minute is processed electronically.

"Up to 60 percent of car traffic in downtown areas consists of people looking for parking. New approaches to the problem are needed," says car2go CEO Robert Henrich. The company now has a fleet of more than 6,500 vehicles, which have been rented more than 5 million times to a quarter-million customers.

Does this make Henrich Daimler's grim reaper? Henrich laughs, saying that he clearly sees car2go as a supplementary business for Daimler. "By the time a young family moves out to the country, it won't be able to get by without its own car."

But what happens when that family opts for local public transportation instead, or for bike sharing in the city? Deutsche Bahn (DB), Germany's national railroad, has also had a presence in the segment for some time, and its Call a Bike service is gaining in popularity. The number of registered customers has increased to more than half a million.

Throughout Germany, more than 2.2 million trips were taken in 2011 with Call a Bike and the company's Hamburg operation, StadtRAD, an increase of more than 40 percent over the previous year. The project is already profitable today. "Naturally, our customers are in the minority compared with people who ride the train or drive," says Rolf Lübke, managing director of DB Rent GmbH, which owns Call a Bike. "But the number of those who use alternative consumption is a real factor."

But not even the pioneers believe that this new form of economic collaboration makes us better people. It's clear to Swap in the City Managing Director Shalev, for example, that his swap parties are no Good Samaritan events, but exist mainly for the purpose of making money. That still doesn't stop more than 5,000 articles of clothing from getting collected at each of his events. He donates the leftovers to organizations like the German Red Cross or the Catholic charity Caritas -- "to make me feel good," he says.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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