For years the electric bike industry in the UK has been letting itself down. The modus operandi for many of the first 'electric bike companies' seems to have been to buy a container of cheap e-bikes out of China, taking advantage of the lack of dumping levy and trying to sell them to the more trusting IBDs or simply dumping them on eBay.
Once these machines actually got into the hands of the general public of course there was carnage. Even if the bikes actually worked for a few weeks, inevitably they would break down, leaving the IBD to pick up the pieces. Naturally there would be no stock of spare parts and just as little knowledge or help available when it came to fixing problems. The only upside was these bikes were very cheap!
Thankfully times have changed and although there are still a few container merchants out there, IBDs have become very wary and these bikes are generally dumped straight onto eBay or sold at car boot sales.
As you can imagine, this has left an understandably unreceptive audience among professional bicycle retailers in the UK. Most are now closed to this new and lucrative market, a market that has taken Germany and Holland by storm. In such countries, the sales of good quality electric bikes have helped the whole bicycle market grow.
While the number of new bikes being sold remains pretty static, one in ten bikes sold in Holland and Germany during 2008 was electric and therefore very much
more expensive than the average bike. This has driven the average retail price of bikes skywards – and the Dutch and German retailers that have embraced the e-bike are understandably happy.
The majority of electric bikes sold in the UK are retailed via a growing number of electric bike specialists. Very few come through more traditional bicycle retailers. Disregarding the early cheap electric bike problem, the reasons for this reluctance in IBDs is not clear. Electric bikes need, more than any other bike, to be sold through professional cycle specialists as the need for servicing and explanation is more important. To this end the electric bike specialists are doing a fantastic job; as most of them have come up through the bicycle industry they understand both the bicycle and electrics.
In my opinion, the reason IBDs have not embraced the electric bike movement is for three very simple reasons. First, the idea that an electric motor should be
placed on such a pure piece of machinery as a bicycle is unpalatable. Second, there is a concern that the electronics on an electric bike will be tricky to deal with and service. Third, as already discussed there is a worry that electric bike suppliers will let them down in terms of support and spare parts.
TAKE THE ELECTRIC AVENUE
Putting an electric motor onto the vehicle opens cycling to a far greater audience. The obvious market is to older people who used to ride, but because of hip replacements or similar, simply can’t manage a traditional bicycle any more. Why keep them out of the bike shops and off the road? There are many
more markets, such as commuters who don’t want to arrive at work and have to shower. Then there's the less fit who would love to exercise on a bike but can’t manage to cycle far without some help. The fitness market is very strong. I am amazed by the number of people chopping their electric bike in after a year or so as their fitness levels have increased to the point where they want to buy a traditional bike again.
Those worried about the difficulty of servicing electric bikes will be pleased to learn that there are bikes now, such as Wisper, that are available with modular electronics. If any part fails or is damaged it is a very simple job to swap the whole part for a new one within a few minutes. There is absolutely no need to start getting inside complicated batteries, motors or controllers, simply swap them out. Indeed the electronics are probably the most easily repaired part of the electric bike.
Finally as long as the supplier is chosen carefully there is absolutely no need to worry about availability of spares or advice. The best electric bike companies now have dedicated service managers who are employed to help and talk through any problems there may be and assist in finding a speedy solution to any problem.
There is a massive, lucrative and quickly growing market simply waiting for IBDs to become involved. I believe that, as in Germany and Holland, the first to embrace the market will see excellent growth in turnover and profitability in 2010.