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<b>Belgium 2009:</b> Reticence for e-Bikes Disappearing

Sales & Trends

2009 was once again an excellent bicycle year in Belgium. Although sales volumes were down here and there, turnover seems to have generally increased. This is largely due to the electric bicycle as well as to the general

<b>Belgium 2009:</b> Reticence for e-Bikes Disappearing

GAND, Belgium – 2009 was once again an excellent bicycle year in Belgium. Although sales volumes were down here and there, turnover seems to have generally increased. This is largely due to the electric bicycle as well as to the general increase of the quality level of bicycle sales.

Despite a few inspiring campaigns to promote cycle usage, Belgian authorities still lack a long term and integrated vision on the development of cycling infrastructure.

Belgium: Top Five Bike Export Countries

Country
Number
(in units)
+/-
Average value
per bicycle (in euro)
+/-
 
2008
2009
 
2008
2009
 
France
608,498
364,742
-40.1%
109.11
150.24
+37.7%
Germany
121,042
94,544
-21.9%
37.07
267.40
+621.3%
Spain
83,405
35,602
-57.3%
178.51
343.13
+92.2%
Italy
69,292
32,335
-53.3%
192.21
347.74
+80.9%
Holland
58,920
60,528
-2.7%
181.29
178.93
-1.3%
Total Belgian
export
1,121,974
737,199
-34.3%
156.44
219.05
+40.0%

Source: National Bank of Belgium

In 2009, just fewer than 1.17 million bicycles were imported into Belgium. That is 23.1% less than in 2008. Their average value was almost € 159, which is a good 12% higher than the previous year. Export volume plummeted as well: -34.3%.

The average value was almost € 220, i.e. 40% higher than in 2008. Belgian import and export statistics have little to do with the home market, because of the extremely high transit volume. Nevertheless the numbers appear to show a clear trend. The shrinking quantities seem to concern low-value bicycles, whereas imports and exports of more expensive bicycles seem to hold up a lot better.

Soaring average values

For the 4th year in a row, imports from main supplier Taiwan declined. A blow of almost 29% took the import volume back to the 2003 level of just under 190,000. On the other hand, average value gained a spectacular 29.4% and reached more than € 205. Thanks to a very limited loss in import volume, Sri Lanka regained second place from France. Average value however shrunk with 8% to € 46.57. All other suppliers of low-end bicycles suffered considerable losses last year. Chinese imports were more than halved to + 49,000, whereas average value further declined with 8.2% to € 40.59.

Sales of Dutch bicycles in Belgium were subject to a minor loss of 1.7%. The extremely high average value was more or less stable at just under € 520. We already noted in last year’s market report, that these import statistics probably include electric bicycles. In 2008, the German import figure made a huge and inexplicable leap. Last year, volume shrunk back with 44.3%, whilst average value recovered with over 44%. Italian imports showed a similar trend with volume down almost 53% and average value almost doubling.

As for export, the trend is even more outspoken: almost 35% less volume and an average value increase of 40% to almost € 220.

Convinced cyclists

From his business results, Luc De Smet, owner of Thompson, concludes that in 2009 the economic crisis clearly had an impact: “We sold 10% less volume but our turnover grew with 6%. These results lasted in the first months of 2010. To me, the explanation is quite simple. The economic crisis has not deterred convinced cyclists from their decision to buy a new bike.

Consumers, who were going to buy rather on an impulse, might have been more likely to decide not to pursue their purchase.” Thompson is a 90-year-old family business, currently employing some 30 people. Their bicycles are distributed through a network of some 250 specialist dealers. They realize 90% of their turnover in Flanders, the northern half of Belgium. In the more hilly southern Walloon half, cycling still remains underdeveloped. Whereas most of his colleagues focus on city bikes, Luc De Smet mainly sells bicycles for recreational purposes.

The racing bike category is clearly growing, whilst an increasing number of riders choose carbon, therefore more expensive bikes. “Another important range to us is the sports bike, which people use for day trips in the weekend or in their holidays. Finally, we notice a slight revival of the mountain bike. Cycling is a cheap sport, therefore we believe there is still potential.”

Although Luc De Smet acknowledges the high turnover in the electric bike business, he feels no urge to get involved. He does have one folding bike available: aluminium frame, 20” wheels, 6 Shimano gears and V-brakes at € 389. “It is not a niche market we really want to get into, but we do notice in our dealer network an interest in an affordable, good quality folding bicycle.”

1 out of 5 Gazelle’s is electric

L’Avenir is another family business, more than 110 years old, assembling its own brand and, since 1966, distributing Gazelle. Stefan Mariën states that 2009 was a good year. Both volume and average value rose and this was to a very large extent due to the success of the electric bicycle. “One out of 5 new Gazelle bikes we sell is electric. This is partly to the detriment of conventional city bikes. The clientele consists exclusively of 50+ people, many of them in early retirement having time and money at their disposal.

For years now, I have been hearing prophecies about electric bikes becoming popular among businessmen in suits and among young people. I have no belief in these prophecies whatsoever.”
Nonetheless, research carried out at the University of Brussels shows that consumers have a different perception. Over a period of 2 years, 250 volunteers tested an electric bicycle for several weeks. They mainly used it for commuting, shopping and recreation. After the test, they were asked who they thought was the most typical user of an electric bike. Their answer was as shown in table.

Most typical e-Bike user in Belgium 

 
Percentage
Commuters
61.4%
Elderly people
32.5%
Less sporty people who want to exercise more
24.9%
People who live in a hilly area
12.7%
Everybody
11.7%
Physically impaired people
10.7%
Sporty people
6.6%
Shoppers
5.6%
People who want to cycle without too much effort
4.6%
Employees in suits
3.6%
People who live in flat area
3.6%
Long distance cyclists
1.5%
Student and daredevils
1.5%

Reticence

A few years ago, most Belgian dealers were still very cautious as to the prospects for this “very expensive bicycle”.  For the 2007 study “The Pedelec Market in Flanders”, 102 bicycle dealers filled in a questionnaire, whilst the researchers also analysed the websites of an additional 110 bicycles shops. 85% of the responding dealers were offering e-Bikes or power kits. 33% of the dealers had one single brand, 51% offered at least 2 different brands.

However, only 38% of the visited websites mentioned electric bicycles. The researchers concluded: “This is much less than what would be expected from the results of responding dealers. Whether the 85% is too much because dealers who do not offer e-Bikes did not take trouble to answer the inquiry, or the dealers find it unnecessary to make publicity for these products on their websites. This could mean that most dealers are not actively promoting the electric bicycle. Their main concern is the ordinary human powered bicycle. (…) Although most dealers are won for electrical assistance, they are not actively promoting the electric bicycles.”

As e-Bikes are becoming increasingly popular, the reticence among dealers is disappearing. According to Stefan Mariën there are still two different positions. Older dealers without a successor usually don’t bother anymore. In truly professional businesses, the entrepreneurs know that electric bicycles have become “incontournable”.

Commuters

Sparta’s Commercial Director Mark Kuper confirms that sales of e-Bikes in Belgium have definitely taken off: “Belgium usually follows the Dutch bicycle trends with a few years difference. That is not only the case for electric bikes, but for instance also for city bikes with a full chain guard and gear hubs. Today however, our sales in Belgium are growing more than in The Netherlands.

The average price is slightly lower. We have recently introduced two e-Bikes at € 1,499, which sell extremely well in Belgium.” According to Kuper, Sparta sells half of their electric bicycles in Belgium to people younger than 60. The most important age group is 50 to 70, whereas the clientele of 70+ is negligible. Nevertheless, the age group 35 to 55 is also expanding. They use their vehicle more for rides in town (shopping, visiting, …) and for commuting, whereas the older public rather has an electric bike for recreation.

Nico Lauwaert, who owns a bicycle shop near Antwerp, confirms that he is now also selling e-Bikes to commuters. “At first, we only sold women’s bikes, today we also sell men’s models. Commuters are interested in electric bikes because of the tax-free allowance of € 0.2 per km, which helps to pay back their investment. With assistance, they can cover longer distances and they can cycle without sweating.” Early last year, Lauwaert reported decreasing sales as a result of the economic crisis. By the summer however, the backlog was eliminated and 2009 ended as a record year.

As for his last year’s attempt to establish a new dealer association in Belgium, that was less successful. He and his colleagues had to abandon the idea because the candidate-founders could not agree on how to proceed with the formation of such an association.

Infrastructure

As far as infrastructure is concerned, a lot still needs to be done. In the Walloon region, there is some interest in the development of a recreational network, but there is hardly any attention for utilitarian cycling. The cyclists’ population there is still very limited; the famous chicken and egg question.

Flanders suffers from disintegrated authority. This often results in available funding not being used. The Flemish minister has now brought all competent authorities together in a so-called “Cycle Team”. It has developed an integrated investment programme of € 100 million for this year. It is expected to produce a programme for the period 2011-2014.

The Flemish Cyclists’ Association is not impressed. They point out that € 100 million is just enough for 250 km of cycling paths. In 2001 a cycling network of 12,000 km has been publicly announced of which today only 1/4th   has been constructed. With an annual budget of € 100 million, it will take another 30 years to build the remaining 3/4. The Association demands a drastic budget increase and the creation of a special government agency with a view to speed up the development of the network.

Campaigns for Promoting Cycling

Due to a lack of statistics, it is very difficult to assess the development of cycle usage in Belgium. In 2008, car usage for commuting has decreased with 1.9%, which resulted in 0.5% more cycle usage. With that, there are several initiatives aimed at promoting cycling. One of the most successful and remarkable campaigns is “Met Belgerinkel naar de Winkel” (With Ringing Bells to the Shop) aimed at stimulating people to use their bike for shopping.

During one month in spring, shoppers can collect stamps by going by bike to participating shops. In the past 8 years, cards with 6 stamps participated in a raffle. Last year, the organizers convinced the famous Belgian fashion designer Walter Van Beirendonck to design a dedicated cycling bag. The bag could be obtained with 8 stamps and an additional € 14. It became a true collector’s item: 16,500 pieces were distributed through local bike shops.

All in all, last year’s campaign generated 175,000 participants who had 378,000 cards stamped in 16,000 shops. In this instance, Belgium is not the follower but the pacemaker. One or two years ago, the Netherlands has decided to also adopt the campaign. This year, 15 Dutch towns have participated.

Other campaigns are rather focusing on cycling to work. “Bike to Work” is part of the European funded Lifecycle project, aimed at integrating physical exercise into daily routines. Cycling commuters receive one point per cycle ride to work. They can exchange these points for benefits ranging from bike shop vouchers to cinema tickets.

Belgium already had meal-cheques, culture-cheques and sports-cheques, fringe benefits exempt from tax and social security. Last year, the government launched the eco-cheques that can be exchanged for ecological products and services including (electric) bicycles, components, accessories as well as bike servicing and repair.  In 2009, 1.1 million Belgians received eco-cheques up to a maximum of € 125. This year that maximum has doubled. How many of these cheques have been spent in bike shops is unfortunately not known.

Top Ten Bike Supplying Countries (in units and in %)

 
Country
Volume
Average Value Per Unit
 
2008
2009
+/-
2008
2009
+/-
Taiwan
265,148
188,655
-28.9%
159.03
205.76
+29.4%
Sri Lanka
158,134
156,187
-1.2%
50.60
46.57
-8.0%
France
180,786
122,977
-32.0%
221.39
195.71
-11.6%
Holland
106,874
105,080
-1.7%
523.81
518.96
-0.9%
Germany
209,526
94,544
-54.9%
117.74
169.81
+44.3%
Indonesia
89,872
90,522
+0.7%
108.87
136.34
+25.2%
Italy
108,305
51,033
-52.9%
86.79
167.97
+93.3%
Philippines
60,166
49,830
-17.2%
34.47
30.98
-10.1%
Bangladesh
57,103
49,818
-12.8%
69.56
92.11
+32.4%
China
120,092
48,570
-59.6%
44.23
40.59
-8.2%
Total
1,520,590
1,169,765
-23.1%
141.55
158.92
+12.27%

Source: National Bank of Belgium

 

 

 

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