Call it the first form of real commerce. The practice of people bartering goods and services with others dates back to ancient times.Now, U.S. companies barter products and services worth $7.6 million a year, and the numbers are growing, say industry sources. They say worldwide, businesses do $600 billion in bartering annually.About 1.2 million companies in North America will engage in barter within the decade, according to the International Reciprocal Trade Association. Sixty-five percent of the businesses on the New York Stock Exchange barter.What’s going on? More companies see bartering as a hot financial tool that may provide a competitive advantage.It boils down to a simple system of debits and credits. Join a barter network, and membership allows you to use “trade credits” to buy something from any other business in the network. And when someone buys a product or service from you, you can use the credits you receive to buy from any other member.An increasing multitude of corporations barter to try to improve cash flow, attract new customers and gain more market share.BarterCorp in Oakbrook Terrace, IL, the Midwest’s largest trade network with more than 3,500 members, recently found its member businesses accelerating their spending of barter bucks on employee incentives.One case: a Chicago company that develops direct-mail coupon books bought travel awards by using BarterCorp credits. The prizes inspired the firm’s sales force to reach higher sales goals annually for the last four years.Another case: a Milwaukee business that sells advertising specialties spent trade dollars to acquire restaurant certificates and distributed them to the company’s team as rewards for meeting sales goals. The company’s top performer won a trip for four – airfare, hotel and airport limousine included – all bought through the BarterCorp network.If you open an account with BarterCorp, the network would advertise your offerings to the network. For example, when somebody buys $1,000 worth of your products or services, BarterCorp transfers $1,000 in trade dollars into your account from the buyer’s. Next, you can use the $1,000 in trade dollars to purchase from any other member. With BarterCorp, you can pick from any of three kinds of accounts, including one with no up-front charge. All programs carry transaction and monthly maintenance fees.Reach BarterCorp at 18W100 22nd Street, Ste. 100, Oakbrook Terrace, IL 60181, 1-800-589-2278, fax 630/953-8101.