IF YOUR IMAGE OF BARTERING is one of, say, a restaurant offering a few dinners to a carpenter for a custom-built table or some chairs, you’re only partially correct. That sort of direct, one-to-one trade between businesses does happen -- a Los Angeles artist, for instance, recently traded paintings for everything from haircuts to legal assistance to plastic surgery. Still, that kind of quid pro quo bartering can be difficult to pull off.

“The challenge of business-to-business bartering in a direct fashion is that you have to have a trading partner who has exactly what you want at the same exact time for the exact same value. We call it a coincidence of one, and it’s -difficult to find,” says Jason Richards, head of marketing for BizXchange, a Seattle-based barter-exchange business that helps facilitate ¬transactions between companies. “And there’s financial risk. What happens if a printer does the job and receives gift certificates from a restaurant, but it [then] goes out of business? They’re exposing themselves to financial risk.”

By contrast, barter-exchange companies -- there are more than 250 in the country, including BizXchange, NuBarter, Itex, and International Monetary Systems -- help businesses exchange goods and services whenever and with whomever they wish. Here’s how it works: Let’s say a hotel is a member of a barter exchange and has a $300-per-night room to offer to another member of the exchange. Supplying that $300 room -- meaning that someone else in the network actually uses it -- earns the hotel $300 worth of what are typically known as “trade dollars” (it’s a dollar-for-dollar conversion), which the hotel owner can turn around and use to acquire just about anything from another exchange member. “There’s just about every type of product and service, from ads to psychotherapy to a house remodel to Mother’s Day presents,” says Gary Field, president of NuBarter, a Savannah-based exchange company that, like most others do, charges a sign-up fee as well as a commission on each transaction. Members can search an online database at NuBarter to find fellow members who may have something they need or want.