TOKYO, Japan – While e-bikes are currently booming in several EU nations, in Japan they are still expanding, but the novelty has worn off. Electric bikes are already part of everyday life. What Bike Europe was most keen to learn when visiting a pedelec-only store in Tokyo: Why haven’t Nippon’s longtime e-bike makers been able to sell their pioneering e-bike models to the world? Why are only their e-bike-kits able to compete with all the newcomers coming to the international market? And why are there only a handful of e-bike only IBD’s in this comparatively mature electric bike market?
Five years ago O-Wing, a company overseeing the businesses of nine IBD stores in Tokyo and one online shop, founded ‘Assist’ – one of only a handful of e-bike only stores in Japan. This year O-Wing is also celebrating its 30th anniversary.
“It all started with a repair car that was allowed to stop on several supermarket parking areas. Later some bicycle sales were added to that business. In 1991 O-Wing opened its first stationary business in Tokyo-Kitasenju. “Our first Wingpaw Kitasenju store also houses the O-Wing headquarters,” says Assist shop manager Masaki Watanabe.
With an eye on the Japanese long history in electric bikes Watanabe agrees that the opening of Assist was late. But he notes, “In the past all our stores have done good e-bike sales. The main reason to open Assist was after realizing that here in Himonya in the southwest of Tokyo, the area is much more hilly than the rest of Tokyo. The demand in Himonya is higher than in other parts of the city. That’s the background of our first e-bike only store”.
Since O-Wing opened its first pedelec-only store this business field has been fully in the hands of Assist. Each store has a focus on one target group. This philosophy makes sense in an area where space is lacking and therefore expensive.
What’s more astonishing is that there are only a few e-bike stores in Japan. Watanabe tries to find an answer, “Perhaps it is due to the investment you have to risk. For O-Wing it wasn’t such a big step. Our existing bicycle stores were already selling e-bikes. The only thing we had to do is giving this segment a separate platform.”
E-bike sales still on the rise
It pays off. According to the Assist shop manager the store can count on a stable yearly ten percent sales increase. This number is in line with the latest sales figures being published by the Japan Bicycle Promotion Institute (JBPI). 2010 e-bike sales in Japan increased 9.1% over 2009 to a total of 335,576 units. This amount is a record number and means the demand for electric-assisted bicycles in Japan is still increasing. Watanabe says that Assist is currently selling about 100 pedelecs per month – a reliable figure when taking the store traffic and sales during our visit into account.
Approximately 25% of the Assist sales are made with parts and accessories – especially with child seats and shopping baskets, but also with helmets. Adult Japanese aren’t required to wear a helmet when cycling, but the law requires children up to 13 years (incl. kids sitting in a bicycle kid seat) to wear one.
Clear target group
By far the largest customer group is mothers between 25 and 40 years searching for a “mamacheri bicycle” – the classic Japanese version of a European city bike with shopping basket and kid seat. But there are also more and more elderly, 70+ customers coming in, notes Watanabe. Nevertheless, when checking the complete bicycle product range in and outside the tiny store, it becomes obvious that ‘mamacheris’ are the number one sales hit.
Different models, quality, price
The quality and pricing of the store’s inventory makes it clear that this e-bike market in Japan can hardly be compared with the one in Europe. The pedelec range being offered at Assist has sales prices from JPY 80,000 to JPY 120,000 (710 to 1,100 euro).
According to Masaki Watanabe most pedelecs are sold for, “a middle-grade sales price of JPY 100,000 (890 euro).”
The average sales price for an e-bike sold on the Japanese market in 2010 was JPY 67,083 (595 euro; source JBPI). This figure includes mass merchant sales.
Only e-bike kits compete
The Assist range includes all Japan’s renowned names in electric bikes such as Panasonic (their current bestseller), Sanyo, Yamaha and Tobu (a small niche supplier based in Nagoya). A look at this range underlines why it doesn’t make it into the global market. The Japanese waited too long to include the latest model trends in its offerings to overseas markets. These companies keep on pushing the “mamacheris”.
The only product successfully making it into the world market – thanks to the advantage of a longtime technology-know-how on batteries and e-transmission systems, are the e-bike kits from these pioneering makers. These field-proven kits face more and more competition out of neighbouring production nations such as Taiwan and China, but can throw their longtime use and experience in Japan into the game. European suppliers such as for example German Derby Cycle AG rely successfully on Panasonic’s e-bike kit.
Industry insiders wonder why the experienced and flexible Japanese car industry is able to react immediately on market trends. That’s what made it to a global leader. But when it comes to e-bikes and pedelecs they totally ignored and/or missed that step.