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The Rise of the "Sharing" Economy

06/05/2014 04:46 pm ET | Updated Aug 05, 2014

Share communities, in which people around the world offer for rent things they own, are becoming a bona fide economic phenomenon. Today's established comfort level with conducting online transactions has opened the door for sharing personal property via the Internet that may have seemed unfathomable even a few short years ago. Companies on- and offline need to understand how to respond, given how many people are interested in participating, both geographically and among all age groups. Most importantly, they need to recognize that, at some point in the not-distant future, if it can be shared, it probably will be shared. The most dramatic effect will be on manufacturers and retailers who make or sell products that are used only occasionally.

Sharing communities are already creating new value and disrupt existing businesses. The consumer rental market alone is worth an estimated $26 billion overall, according to Rachel Botsman, who wrote "What's Mine Is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption" in 2010. In the sharing economy overall, what started as a modest income boost for some has turned into a pipeline of revenue that is cutting into that market as well as adding to it: Forbes estimates the sharing economy will surpass $3.5 billion this year.

New companies are springing up to facilitate the process. Companies like Airbnb, a home rental service, and ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft are mounting very public campaigns to disrupt long-established industries. They have drawn more than their share of media attention as they refine their business models and, in some cases, navigate thorny legal issues. As the market makers who bring together borrowers and sharers, they and companies who stake out similar territory may well be the winners in this space.

But long-established companies are not leaving the field to startups. Companies such as Avis Budget Group, which paid a reported $500 million for U.S. car-sharing service Zipcar in 2014, has clearly recognized the shift. And the Home Depot, which rents products in about half of its stores, might reasonably be regarded as a "first mover" in this space. It was renting pick-up trucks by the hour years before Zipcar was a gleam in anyone's eye.

Undoubtedly, there are details to be worked out and norms to be established in this evolving sector. But it is a mistake to get distracted by the headlines of the moment or to dismiss the sharing economy as the latest digital whim. If you haven't considered a share strategy for your business, there are at least three reasons to develop one.

First, a recent Nielsen global survey shows overwhelming support for the concept of sharing: 68 percent of respondents are willing to share their assets for financial gain. Similarly, 66 percent say they're likely to use or rent products or services from others in a share community.

Second, the region that is most receptive to the idea of sharing also presents some of the greatest economic opportunities: Asia-Pacific. Seventy-eight percent of respondents in Asia-Pacific are willing to share their own goods, and 81 percent said they are likely to rent from others. Asia-Pacific is the region with the highest consumer confidence average in the world. And although the region has slowed down from double-digit GDP gains in the last decade, it remains a crucial area of economic growth for many large companies.

And finally, share communities are not only for the young. The stereotypical picture of the sharing economy right now is that it is the preserve of tech-savvy, open-minded younger people. And it's true that 35 of the 66 percent of people among global respondents likely to rent products from others in share communities are the 21-34-year-old Millennials (who will, let us not forget, presumably be the heads of a vast number of households in 10 years' time).

But many in Generation X (ages 35-49) are willing to give it a try (17%). And 7 percent of Boomers (ages 50-64) are willing to share--the same percentage as for Generation Z (under 20).

Amid major population shifts around the world, changing consumer behavior and an increasingly fragmented media landscape, it's harder and harder to find agreement among an overwhelming majority of consumers. In a sense, the share community could constitute a new mass market of its own.

Companies should be embracing share communities, rather than ignoring or resisting them. They add another crucial link to the value chain, and companies should be looking at ways they can participate. But whether a company gets involved today or not, there is one lesson important for all. As peer-to-peer communication online dominates consumers' purchase decisions on- and offline more and more, trust, which is the foundation for the success of share communities, is increasingly vital for every other business model, too. Your customer relationships are your true assets--treat them as such. Listen and act accordingly, both online and off.

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