• Image about Carol Kirchner

In a tough economy, more businesses are turning to old-fashioned bartering.

When Carol Kirchner looks around her business, there are plenty of things she can spy that she didn’t pay for. In the retail outlet of her Savannah, Georgia, company Smart Feet -- which Kirchner describes as a “foot comfort” store, meaning that she helps fit customers with shoes that both look good and precisely match the contours of their feet -- she need only glance up at the shelves she had installed to display her wares or down at the clean carpet or perhaps outside at her business’s sign to see them. At her home, the new garage door and the plantation shutters are among them. Even her stay at a swank Chicago hotel while on a trip to see her two sons and their families didn’t involve her laying down one cent of cash.

No, it’s not what you may be thinking -- and shame on you for thinking it -- Kirchner isn’t some kind of swindler. Instead, Kirchner, like a lot of big- and small-business owners do in this down economy, relies more and more on the age-old economic system of bartering, in which individuals and companies exchange goods and services rather than cold, hard cash. With it being difficult or impossible to get credit and it becoming harder and harder to find and retain customers, the barter economy has soared recently. Indeed, the International Reciprocal Trade Association, a nonprofit industry group based in Portsmouth, Virginia, reports that about 300,000 North American companies conducted approximately $5 billion in barter transactions in 2008, an increase of about 10 percent from 2007. Additionally, Craigslist reports a 100 percent increase over last year in the number of barter ads posted to its website.