Of the rash of bartering sites that appeared in 2006, only a few survive. But their patrons believe money-less exchange is the way forward for a green lifestyle.
In 2006, Canadian blogger Kyle MacDonald, who bartered his way from a single red paper clip to a house, through a series of online trades became a much-told tale.
Shanghai native Li Huizhu has swapped coupons and show tickets given by the nursery school where she teaches, and cosmetics gifted by friends and colleagues, for more than 500 items of everyday use. This has helped her accumulate all the shampoo and soaps her family has needed over the two years that she has been bartering.
"Everything, except for money, is exchangeable on the bartering website. All you do is upload a picture of the items you don't want, write a few words about it, leave your contact information and then, just wait and see what happens," says Li.
"The only rule to follow is to be honest with what you deal. Don't brag about or hide anything. And keep in mind the item's utility for the other side," Li adds.
But Sun Yumin, one of the founders of a Shanghai-based bartering website, and Li's friend, believes successful bartering calls for "a special talent" - a combination of a salesman's persuasiveness and a collector's shrewdness.
"Bartering is based on trust. There is never a guarantee of satisfaction. And conflicts occur frequently, especially when it comes to electronic gadgets," Sun says.
To minimize troubles, the swapping of goods is usually done face-to-face, so that the items can be examined personally before a deal is sealed.
These personal meetings also lead to unlikely friendships.
"Girls and boys my son's age come to me for help with telling fakes from originals, and secondhand from new. I feel young and happy hanging out with them," Li says.
According to Sun, 70 percent of the website's members are young white-collar workers, with retired or middle-aged computer literate people comprising the rest.
The most popular items are discount shopping cards, bakery coupons and show tickets that have a precise value.
Hundreds of bartering websites cropped up in 2007, when the legend of Kyle MacDonald swept through the country.
But most were unable to turn in a profit and shut down. Since they provide a free service to those users, some sites make money only through advertisements posted by other online stores, and that is often just enough to offset its basic costs.
The only reason for its survival, Sun says, is that it is free. That leaves little scope for any expansion, in spite of its increasing popularity.