Opening a new retail business in the midst of an historic economic downturn isn’t exactly a safe bet, especially when there’s not a very big existing market for your product. But that didn’t stop Wake Gregg from opening Portland’s first all-electric bicycle store, The eBike Store (201 N. Alberta), last week.
“There are a lot of people who would commute by bike…they just need a little boost.”
— Wake Gregg, owner of The eBike Store
According to his wife Ivy (who works at Columbia Sportswear but is also helping run the new store), Wake has always had a passion for bicycles, and he’s an, “entrepreneur to his toes”. Those two things combined in a lightbulb moment for Wake during a 12 week trip to Beijing, China last year. As part of an international business course at George Fox University (where he’s getting an MBA), Wake fell in love with electric bikes. So did all of his classmates. They all wanted one.
But when he returned to the states, Wake realized that Americans haven’t caught the e-bike wave. Why not? One big reason, he says, is that they haven’t been marketed properly (large photos of healthy and hip urbanites zipping through traffic adorn his shop’s walls). Wake also says the bikes themselves are not readily available.
“My first thought was, why aren’t these more popular here?,” he recalled. According to Wake, the idea of going 15-35 miles on about 3 cents of electricity, while also getting a bit of exercise, seemed like a no-brainer. Wake also believes there are a lot of people who would commute by bike but who choose not to because of just one big hill, a health issue, or they just “need a little boost”.
Convinced that he wanted to create a business, his first idea was to import the bikes from China. When that didn’t pan out, he thought he’d become a sales rep. But as he continued to research he realized the market was still only in its infancy. “These bikes are a completely new concept to consumers,” he said, “and at most traditional bike shops they’re mocked.”
Wake was referring to a problem with e-bikes that might be similar to that of recumbents — they’re not considered “real” bikes by most enthusiasts and bike shops employees, so anyone inquiring about them might not get the warmest, or most knowledgeable, reception.
Wake saw a major opportunity to create an all e-bike store, carrying a wide selection of models from top brands, in a comfortable and supportive retail environment. And that’s just what he’s done.
Thanks to a partnership with the oldest e-bike store in the U.S. — Seattle-based Electric Bikes Northwest — Wake was able to open The eBike Store. Currently, his shop features a range of models from the eZee brand (others will be arriving soon), an assortment of accessories and — in order to give customers as much time to learn about the bikes as possible — plush leather coaches and complimentary coffee drinks.
As for the bikes, I was impressed at what I saw: There was a step-through city bike with all the utility trimmings; an all-black, 26-inch wheeled mountain-bike/commuter/hybrid; and even a folding bike. Wake estimates the battery and other e-bike specific parts adds about 15 pounds of weight.
In exchange for that weight, Wake says his bikes offer “2/3 the power of Lance Armstrong”.
Will promises like that, along with a retail storefront, a good business sense and a smart marketing plan be enough to turn Portlanders on to e-bikes?
Globally, electric bike sales are growing at a rapid pace. According to an article published last week in the trade publication Bike Europe, “The e-Bike was the driving force for the Dutch bike market in 2008” and similar trends are happening in Germany. Euro bike industry organizations expect the e-Bike market to grow 25-30% this year.
In China, 90 million e-bikes are currently on the road. In the U.S., only 20,000 were sold last year. Despite that small number of U.S. sales, there’s definitely momentum in the market. The May 2009 issue of Bicycling Magazine (about as mainstream as you can get in the bicycle world) has a feature article about e-bikes. They reported that e-bike sales are up 60% in the U.S. and concluded that, “maybe it’s time to stop hating on e-bikes…for better or for worse, the e-bike is on the rise.”
Wake hopes Bicycling Magazine is right. He admits that the economy is “terrible” but he also seems remarkably confident. Portland’s dedication to being a bike-friendly city is “huge” he says, as is the 12-year track record of Electric Bikes Northwest.
When I was there on opening day last week, Wake — and his wife Ivy, who is helping around the shop — sold their first bike, before the sign was even on the door. It was an $1,800, sharp-looking step-through, internally-geared city bike. The man who purchased it was physician who commutes from Johns Landing to downtown Portland.
Maybe he just needed a boost, the same boost Wake hopes his store will bring to the local electric bike market.
— If you’re curious about how Oregon statutes treat electric bikes, Wake says there are four main laws to keep in mind: You can’t go above 20 mph unassisted; they are illegal on sidewalks; operators must be over 16 years of age; and they are legal on bike lanes and bike paths.
— The eBike Store is located at 201 N. Alberta and is open Wednesday through Friday from 10 – 6:30, Saturdays from 10-5:00 and by appointment on Tuesdays (they’re closed Sunday and Monday). Read more about the bikes they carry on ElectricBikesNW.com.