These are boom times for electric bicycles, as the war in Ukraine continues to drive gas prices higher across the United States. But for founders of e-bike, e-scooter, and electric moped companies, the spike in interest from commuters and recreational riders hasn't resulted in the windfall you might expect.
Rad Power Bikes founder and chief executive Mike Radenbaugh says over the past month, 30 percent of customers of his Seattle-based direct-to-consumer electric bicycle company have been looking to purchase because of rising gasoline prices, and to replace car miles they'd typically drive with bicycle miles.
"Rising gas prices are a catalyst for a whole new tranche of consumers," he says. "Maybe they knew about e-bikes, but are finally jumping on board now."
Bird saw a 30 percent rise in traffic to its website, where it sells e-bikes and e-scooters, in the weeks immediately following the initial spike in gas prices, according to a spokesperson. The remote-based startup, best known for running urban fleets of electric vehicles, increased its direct-to-consumer sales by 60 percent during the period.
Outdoor retailers typically experience a surge in sales in March, and e-bikes are no different, says Ely Khakshouri, the founder and chief executive of Perris, California-based outdoor-gear startup Retrospec. But the rise in gas prices blew his projections out of the water; Retrospec saw a 200 percent increase in e-bike sales from February to March 2022. Miami-based electric scooter retailer Fluidfreeride's founder Julian Fernau told The Wall Street Journal it sold twice as many units in March as it had in February, and that sales for March were 70 percent higher than in the same month in 2021.
Still, greater sales don't tell the full story for electric-transit startups, whose costs are significantly affected by U.S. gas prices. With a gallon surging to a high of $4.33 on March 11 and hovering above $4 since, increased demand for the companies' products won't necessarily move their bottom lines. "Energy prices aren't just driving consumers. They also impact our cost and expenses at a time when our expenses have never been as unpredictable and volatile," Khakshouri says. "The supply chain environment is as hostile as it can possibly be. And now this on top of it."
Khakshouri says shipping prices are easing a bit--but the relief isn't enough for his company, which through the pandemic has been trying to keep consumer prices accessible. (Electric bicycles range from $779 for a basic commuting model to more than $3,000 for a premium bike. Retrospec's city bike is $1,299, and its popular fat-tire Koa model is $1,899.) "Transportation costs in ocean freight have come down 50 percent, but it's still five times our historical average," he says. Roughly 100 different Retrospec bicycle components are made in Asia.
For Rad Power Bikes, a 700-person company that ships electric bicycles direct to consumer in the U.S. and Canada in addition to running five stores, shipping costs remain high across all ports of call. Radenbaugh says the rising prices of aluminum and cobalt are also challenging the company's efforts to keep its products affordable.
Other factors may also be piquing consumer interest, and continuing to drive sales to electric transit through summer, including a tough new and used car-buying market, as well as remote employees heading back to their pre-Covid workplaces. "During the pandemic we saw a lot of recreational sales. Now we're seeing the return to office, and a segment bringing their hobby into their commute," Khakshouri says.
Bird, the electric-scooter fleet company, has created an online campaign imploring followers to #GiveGastheBird, and will award one poster of that hashtag a free Bird Bike or a Bird Flex e-scooter. Even if gas prices pull both ways on startups' bottom lines now, it's hoping the additional marketing mileage will help continue to drive sales.