I was passing a local flower/gift shop a few days ago and, although only opened a few months ago, the shop had a look of despair (dull window display I'd passed many times before and a closed sign on the door in the middle of a working day at a time of year it should be at its busiest). I wasn't too surprised to see the shutters down and a 'for rent' sign on the door yesterday. These are difficult times for small businesses but, whatever the anxieties of the owners, it really doesn't help attract customers in if the shop front display makes it look like they had given up on the business long before it closed down.
I thought of this sad shop front when recently browsing the Internet looking for Christmas present ideas. There's so much choice now that it can be totally bewildering. The well known brands are there of course and, having had good experiences shopping on such sites gives a lot of confidence. Large organisations have the resources to continually present fresh content and new offers to attract more sales and new customers that small businesses can struggle to provide.
Home exchange is still a small niche within the large travel industry and, as such, no home exchange agency is yet a widely known brand outside the circle of home exchange enthusiasts (although Home Base Holidays does provide a service for a well known brand, the Guardian newspaper). As, apart from guardianhomeexchange, most home swap websites are the shop fronts for small businesses, here are a few tips on what to check for reassurance before deciding which to join:
- Full contact information: email address or form, street address and phone number (with business hours for live contact). Test the service by asking a question. If your phone or email message is not answered promptly and satisfactorily, this is a not a good sign should you have any problems or questions as a member.
- Up-to-date listings: when browsing listings, check for the dates members joined or renewed and when each listing is due to expire. Without this information there is no way of telling how long some listings may have been in circulation already. Also look for years as well as months in exchange dates requested. If there are no exchange dates (or 'open') at all in a large number of listings, this is a good indication that the exchange dates requested are already over.
- Signs of activity: although without the resources of larger businesses, many small Internet businesses, including home exchange agencies, publish newsletters and blogs or operate forums, etc to provide additional, up-to-date information. This is a good sign that the agency is aiming to provide a comprehensive service for its members. However, if there are tell-tale signs of neglect - a 'monthly' newsletter last published many months ago, an abandoned blog or forum, that may well be a clue that the business is struggling or the owners have lost interest.
You wouldn't feel confident patronising a local shop that only opens sporadically, offers poor service and whose window display remains unchanged for months. Use this same instinct when looking for goods or services on the Internet, including home exchange. And don't be taken in by unsubstantiated claims or hype. With a multitude of choice, comes the need for consumers to do thorough research to find the best options to suit their particular needs.