SwapSity launches new bartering website for Torontonians

It's officially spring, and along with that comes spring cleaning. I don't like cleaning on a good day, so the thought of clearing out all the junk I've accumulated over the winter is less than appealing. That's why I was intrigued when I learned about an alternative to carting unwanted items to the curb. What if you could trade your unwanted items for ones that you'd actually use -- or even for various services like teaching a foreign language, or walking your dog? Enter SwapSity, a new startup that launched yesterday in public beta.

SwapSity somewhat awkwardly bills itself as "the premier consumer bartering community for Canadians that helps keep it local while taking it easy on both wallets and the planet." The Toronto-based company, founded by Marta Nowinska, allows people to use their assets -- whether it's an objects or a skills -- as currency.

Once you've registered for a free account on the site, you can start posting the items and skills you can offer to other members. The site offers suggestions on what you can swap -- from items (clothes, electronics, rental properties) to skills (scrapbooking, computer support, piano lessons); to time (dog walking, administrative help). After posting what you have on offer, you can start building your wish-list -- the items and services you'd like in return. The site then matches users, who can either meet in person or ship items to each other. Oh, and if you're trading an old Backstreet Boys CD for a TV, you can supplement the exchange with cash (obviously the BSB CD is worth more).

Right now the site is active in most major cities in Ontario and British Columbia, with plans to expand to other provinces. In private beta since fall 2008, Swapsity currently has over 2,500 members in the GTA alone. And there are already many examples of successful trades -- two members swapped vacation properties, and another member traded kitchen renovations for a 2000 Hyundai Sonata.

The company is also establishing a presence offline in Toronto -- they occasionally host swap meets in the city to allow members to meet face-to-face and attract new bargain hunters (they've hosted two to date, and the next one is in the summer). At the last event, over 200 items were swapped in a few hours.

But aside from a warm fuzzy feeling, what does an exchange give Marta in terms of revenue? After all, the site is free for users and doesn't charge any transaction fees. Marta tells me that they will make their money through advertising and a host of Premium Features, including video listings, extra pictures, and a link to your website.

It all sounds promising, but I have some doubt regarding the prioritizing of the barter system over straight sales transactions. If a user could make cold, hard cash from their item instead of bartering, wouldn't they go that route? And if so, how is the site different from the bigger classified sites like Kijiji?

Marta recognizes that her site is often compared to these classified sites, but says that her tools are closer to the eBay model (including a rating system to establish trust with other members and to make sure a swapper doesn't take your stuff and disappear). If her current base of users is any indication, there is a need for a site that blends traditional classifieds with bartering.

One thing's for sure: with spring cleaning season in full swing, SwapSity picked a timely launch date. Now all I have to do if find someone who wants to swap some old clothes for spring cleaning my condo.

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