Fed up with commuting? Whether it’s the journey to work, ferrying around family members or running errands, there could a way to make these everyday journeys turn a profit.
A new crop of websites are recruiting people to post packages and letters of anything and everything for complete strangers, who trust them with their belongings.
They are just the latest facet of the “sharing economy” – internet-based marketplaces where people trade or swap services – which already turn over an estimated £500m per year.
Websites such as Uber, the taxi service, and Airbnb, where home owners rent to holidaymakers, are well known exponents of the trend. This “sharing economy” is expected to grow to £9bn in the next ten years, according to Pricewaterhouse Coopers, the accountancy firm. This sum is roughly equivalent to today’s textile industry in Britain.
One-quarter of people who have joined a “sharing economy” website so far this year have never used one before, according to research by the industry’s trade body, Sharing Economy UK, which was set up last month by 26 members including Airbnb, Nimber, and others.
What does the “sharing economy” describe, exactly, and how do these websites differ from any online advertising? Debbie Wosskow, chief of the group, said: “Sharing things – like house-swapping – has been going for years, but the sharing economy has really kicked off with the growth of smartphones and the internet.
“Put simply, it’s a website or app where ordinary people can make money and save money from things they already own, like their home, a journey they’re already making or a particular skill.”
‘I invest millions, but deliver for £5’
Marketplace-type websites Nimber and TaskRabbit, which have set up in Britain this year, don’t require deliverers to have any licence or special qualifications. The idea is that people can deliver items for somebody if they are going that way anyway, saving the sender money or an avoidable journey.
And as season tickets and petrol costs form an ever-increasing part of families’ budgets, around 100 people a day are turning to these websites as a creative way to cut costs, according to Nimber’s figures.
When he’s not investing in shopping centres across Europe, James Turner, an investment manager, delivers parcels and packages for strangers on his way to work. He uses Nimber, a Norwegian-based website that opened in Britain last month and says it now helps organise around 100 deliveries a week.
“I’ve delivered legal documents and music records. If I can carry it and I’m doing the journey anyway, I’ll go a little bit out of my way to deliver it. It’s a simple thing to do and does something good for the community,” he said.
Mr Turner will make deliveries on his way to the office. With his wife Anna, he is also prepared to deliver small items in their neighbourhood. “You meet different people and it’s fun,” Mr Turner said.
“I’m going to Manchester soon to visit my daughter at university and will be driving a van, so will ask for £50 or so if anyone needs something delivered. Otherwise I’d be driving an empty van up the M1.”
Become a courier, cleaner or pet-sitter
Spare-time delivering is a tiny chunk of the jobs taken on by the estimated 100,000 Britons who use sharing economy websites each year.
Anyone with a bit of cleaning experience can earn a flat rate of £8.50 an hour using the website Hassle, for example, where you can search for nearby cleaning jobs.
Typically these websites ask you to set up an online profile where you advertise your skills and experience, and people can rate you on jobs you have done.
Claire Harding, who previously worked for a charity before losing her job in March, has since been using TaskRabbit to find delivery, cleaning and office temping jobs to tide her over until she finds full-time work.
“I get really bizarre requests sometimes,” said Ms Harding, who now works 40 hours per month. “My favourite was collecting wine bottles for an American lady who had just held a wine-tasting course, and needed them to be recycled. I think I took around 60 bottles that day.”
Ms Harding, 50, has also hand-delivered flowers on Mother’s Day having been asked to by a son living in the US, but says cleaning is the most popular task. “If I can cycle there, I’ll take the job – and once people get to know you they’ll ask you back.”
“I quite like that it’s random, and it goes to show that people have got more creative in making ends meet,” she said.
How much should you charge – and are there any costs?
Deliverers set their own pay when they offer jobs, or can accept jobs for a pre-agreed price.
Mr Turner charges around £5 for a short trip through London. “It’s not my job, but I’m always free to turn down deliveries if I’m busy that day or it’s too far out of my way,” he said.
Nimber tells deliverers to look at what people are charging for similar journeys.
For now the site doesn’t take commission on delivery jobs, but says it will be introducing fees once the service becomes more popular.
“Initially people will price themselves a bit lower until they build up their profile,” said Ms Harding, who says she charges around £15 for an hour – whether it’s cleaning or delivering.
“If I feel the pay is too low I won’t put myself forward for that task.”
Most websites pocket a fraction of the proceeds, just like an ordinary job agency. Hassle, a website that specialises in cleaning, for example, takes £1.50 for every hour a cleaner works, while the householder pays £10 an hour. TaskRabbit also takes a fee for each task, typically 15pc of the hourly rate.
Workers still achieve enormous savings from traditional staffing agencies, the websites say, as job agencies tend to take a higher cut in order to fund overheads like an office or bigger workforce.
What are the risks?
Sharing economy websites, like Nimber, Airbnb and Uber lack the regulations and safety standards offered by more professional, established businesses, critics say.
Traditional black cab drivers, for example, are intensely opposed to new “minicab” services like Uber and say licensed drivers offering cheap fares lack the safety and quality standards of the heavily-regulated taxi industry.
Meanwhile, trusting a stranger with a valuable parcel may seem riskier than relying on Royal Mail – although websites typically insure deliveries (£500 in Nimber’s case).
“I was initially surprised at the trust strangers were willing put in me,” said Mr Turner.
“But in my view, it’s as risky as trusting your package with the postal system. I’ll always know what I’m delivering. Normally I just meet up with the person in a public place, have a chat and off I’ll go.”
There is, however, one less pleasant – but unavoidable – aspect of making money from the things we own and journeys we’re already making: tax.
HM Revenue & Customs is now in talks with Sharing Economy UK to produce a standardised guide to alert people using such websites of the need to declare earnings via a self-assessment tax return.
“The industry needs to act as there’s quite a lot of confusion,” said Ms Wosskow.
“Some people simply save money through using these services, but others are making money – and if so they need to know how to declare it in their tax return.”
An HMRC spokesman said: “Any trading income is taxable in the normal way. If there is an intention to make a profit, then the trader has a legal obligation to let us know.”