With the recent news that box retailers like Wal-Mart and Best Buy are selling ebikes, the market is now being viewed in a new light as part of the wider market of Light Electric Vehicles (LEVs). The U.S. traditional bicycle industry netted $6 billion in sales in 2008 (including bicycles, related parts, and accessories). 21 million ebikes — alternatively known also as motorized bicycles, electrically assisted pedal cycles, e-bikes, electric bicycles and pedalecs — were sold globally in ‘08 with strong adoption in Western Europe and China with Western Europe projected to hit 850,000 ebikes in sales by next year. At 220,000 ebikes/year (a statistic cited by some in the industry as over-stated), sales remain low in the US, yet this represents an 83% increase since 2007 in a market where 20 million traditional bikes are sold annually and demographics and technology favor a surge in ebike market acceptance in the coming years. In the last year, there are new signs of a huge opportunity for the industry despite ongoing resistance by independent bike dealers (IBD) – also known as local bike shops (LBS) and the impact of a recession.
Whether for recreation, socializing or commuting, a new generation of ebikes answer a challenge in the US market: Americans are heavier, taller, expect stronger service and expect power on demand.
Following a clumsy introduction in the ‘90s, power-assisted e-bike technology has improved dramatically, thanks in part to the fast-growing adoption of Lithium ion batteries. These cells have emerged as the dominant battery technology, representing more than half of the market with market prices dropping by 50% in the past 8 years as their power doubled (a trend expected to continue). Also favoring the success of ebikes is the now common use of lighter, stronger bike frames. Some, like with 36-volt batteries, ebikes travel 15-30 miles on a single charge (in contrast to the 10-20 mile range of some category players).
Traditional bicycle are sold through four primary channels: the specialty bicycle retailer, the mass merchant, full-line sporting goods stores, and a mixture of retailers. More than 70% of bicycle units were sold through the mass merchant channel in 2008, but specialty bicycle retailers, although only 17% of the market but 50% of the dollars, These dealers, potentially ideal for ebike sales have been resistant to electric bikes, for the most part due to their perception of ebikes as less serious and inauthentic. That perception is about to change. Market pressure, an aging customer base and the introduction of ebikes into leading retailers will fuel the broader market and increase pressure on specialty retailers.
E-bikes range in form, from the ebike kits that helped kick start the category (and some like BionX which continue to appeal to purists) to limited edition, high-end models for more than $10,000. Despite the dominance of a few key players in the traditional bike market (including Trek/Fisher, Specialized and Giant), ebikes remains a fractured category with open opportunity.
Some of the active in the electric bike market include
- Schwinn’s Tailwind model is the most high profile in the mass market the moment with an SCIB battery, launching the last few months at more than $3,000.
- The Ultramotor’s A2B is getting a lot of notice and promotion
- Giant Bicycles, although associated with lower end bikes, its Twist Freedom, Suede E and Ascend Series (for commuters) are viable
- Currie Technologies sells iZip IQ Series and is distributed through Wal-Mart but also in specialty bike shops
- WaveCrest uses an NiMH battery
- Optibike represents the top end of the category with a cost of $8,000 to $14,000
- OHM’s Lithium Ion battery includes regenerative braking and an option to recharge the battery with pedaling.
- eZee Lithium Ion battery with a 37 volt 10 amp battery
- Pedego At close to half of the price of the leading throttle bike, this new 36 volt, double battery style-conscious entry is expected to launch at Interbike
Beyond this is a variety of lines including military editions, ebikes for the heavy rider and ebikes for carrying heavy loads are being launched.
What points to the success of ebikes? 44.7 million Americans age are estimated to have ridden a bicycle six times or more last year with a media age of 40+ years old. Why do they ride? The Bicycle Market Research Institute in 2006 reported that 73% of adult cyclists rode for recreation, 53% for fitness, 10% for commuting, 8% racing and 6% for sport. With a typical 20 mile range, ebikes are best for use within several miles of home. This fits well with USDOT research showing that 3.9 miles was the average distance of the 90 million bicycle trips taken in the last recorded year. The 40-60 year aged biker is inclined to be of higher income, more politically progressive and seeking a fun, athletic experience. It is quite expected that these riders have turned to bikes for exercise over running and other forms as they age. And a new focus on green politics adds to both the cache and consumer pride in the purchase. Not unlike easy-fit jeans these bikes are increasingly being adjusted to accommodate a willing and wealthier customer seeking the aura of the outdoor mountain biking experience without the arduous exertion and discomfort. In fact, independent retailers report increased service and repair revenues as baby boomers prep take their old bikes out of storage.
Adding to the surge in Western state commuting by bike, NYC Dept of Transportation reported a 35% increase in adults commuting to work. Sales of commuter bikes rose 15% over the past two years and growing, according to Bicycle Market Research Institute. For many of these a practical choice is an electric bike. But the commuter niche remains small relative to the greater market opportunity. Of course, commuting may well be a great excuse for the ebike purchase.
The pleasure one takes in the ride will, as always, be the number one reason to jump on a bike. Fun is what will continue to be at the center of the market and a competitive point of difference for ebike marketers who can sell baby boomers on their offerings.
With a stylish product line, leading-edge technology and launch distribution model, new players like the lower cost mid-market and stylish Pedego slated for launch at Interbike, can be well-positioned to leverage the upcoming mainstream market opportunity in the electric bike category.