If you’d have travelled to Coventry during November to the Bicycle Association’s second meet on the electric bike market in two years expecting a presentation on the fortunes of the sector, you may have been disappointed.
Tabled as an open discussion and led by BA executive director Phillip Darnton, the gathering drew representatives from Halfords, the ACT, Raleigh, Trek, Specialized, CSG, Saddleback, Urban Mover, Cycling Made Easy and many more.
A notable presence in the room was both EBC’s Rick and Paul Stanforth, who since leaving Saracen behind have been firm believers that the electric bike market has as much potential as the mountain bike market that they helped develop so rapidly just a few short decades ago.
“There seems to be two schools of electric bike buyer in the UK,” commented Paul Stanforth. “We’re looking at perhaps sales of 25,000 electric bikes in the UK by the end of 2012, though the market is remaining flat at present. On mainland Europe cycling is the norm and Germany and The Netherlands are benefactors of this, naturally numbers of electric bikes sold are higher.”
In short, the difference between the UK and mainland Europe is that the market here is driven by people who need the product, as opposed to simply desiring it. In some countries, grants are also available for pedal-assist vehicles. But the question remains whether the UK has a big enough pool of people interested. Cost often reared its head during the meet as a prohibitive factor for the average buyer.
Halfords spokesperson in the room said: “Price is a fundamental problem. We can’t get hold of batteries that do the job well for less than £400 pounds.”
This was echoed shortly after by CSG UK director Russell Merry who suggested that “Perhaps electric bikes are just too expensive at present. The dealers are being handed road bike sales on a plate, they’ve no need to search or invest in the next ‘big’ thing. The battery technology must come along to bring the price into a reasonable position to offer stores the margin they need to operate and the retail price that’s within reach of the consumer. There’s simply not the margin in the batteries that there is in the rest of the product.”
It is, after all, down to the dealer to justify the cost of a bike to the customer and when selling an electric bike, retailers tend to compare the cycle to the cost of running a car. A month or two or filling up the tank and the bike’s paid off. Or is it? The term false economy popped up once or twice, again in relation to the cost of the battery.
Putting it to the room that, from a dealer’s perspective, justifying £400 for a replacement battery to the customer wasn’t going to be easy sell, few could argue. It was said that one battery will do between 15 and 20,000 miles in its lifetime, which does provide better value that petrol fuelled transport. This figure is based on the end-user properly looking after their battery, however. Leaving a bike in a shed or garden, or using it seasonally, would cause the battery’s range to deteriorate sooner.
Price is clearly a huge hurdle for this market, converting customers however, is said to be easier with the mature demographic typically looking at electric bikes.
Ray Wookey of Cycling Made Easy, a specialist in the territory, told the room: “We sit customers down and discuss their needs from the bike. A few grand on a bicycle is a big investment, but once they’ve had a spin on a pedal assist the benefits are quickly realised.”
Cycling Made Easy's business will be profiled in the February print magazine.
EBC followed Wookey’s brief address by reminding the room that, typically, people are only sceptics to the point where they actually try an electric bike.
Paul Stanforth said: “We sent a bike out to British Cycling where they were debating in the office the worth of pedal assist over a decent road bike. By the end of their test period the sceptics were converts.”
Furthermore, Mark Loveridge of Hero Eco and electric bike organisation BEBA suggested that to date, introducing and marketing the bikes on the ground had been turning heads.
“We set up in Regent’s Park one day and the response to the bikes was one of enthusiasm and shock at how pedal assist added to their enjoyment of cycling. Once they’d had a go they were asking questions, genuinely interested,” said Loveridge.
As the meet began to conclude there was a suggestion that BEBA could begin to work much closer with the bicycle association, with chairman Darnton promising to the room that the Bicycle Association would represent the electric market, just as it does with all kinds of cycling.
BEBA has since told BikeBiz: "BEBA are in talks with the BA about how the two associations may work together for the benefit of the industry and to align opinion for electric bicycles in the UK. BEBA's core values of offering a mark of excellence, promoting and steering the electric bicycle industry within the UK will not be affected. We will be launching a fantastic promotional price deal to recruit new retail members at the end of January. The promotion will include details of new initiatives in the pipeline for 2013."
Alan Cater, the Bicycle Association’s technical advisor, wrapped up the afternoon’s discussion with the news that he was in consultation with the Department for Transport to bring about some solid legislation on the regulation of speed and power output.
“We’ll likely align with mainland Europe’s regulations,” stated Cater. “There is a cost associated with type approval and this is also something we’re discussing. Sadly these things take time and can jump back to square one with the succession of a new Government. Legislation going forwards is very important and preferably something is in place before the numbers sold in this country begin to become significant.”
Where are electric bikes being sold?
The stats below represent the eight months to August 2012.
United Kingdom: 11,256
Czech Republic: 7,294