Buying an E-Bike On-Line entails Risks ? Who knew ?
Ok so perhaps my headline attracted your attention for the moment.
Here are a few considerations you may want to consider before pulling the trigger for that on-line only sold e-bike 'brand.' These considerations just might save you a lot of headaches, disappointment, or sheer agony ( I get a LOT of those types of calls from owners who bought their e-bikes on-line that aren't now working) after an on-line sold e-bike purchase:
How and where will you get it serviced ? This is potentially going to be your biggest challenge when trying to source from an on-line seller, since very few bike shops carry e-bikes, and nearly every bike shop will refuse to even service the normal everyday bike components on any e-bike. Also to this day, there are very few e-bike only shops in the area, and even fewer (reptuable ones that are LEVA e-bike technician certified) willing to work on brands that they don't sell, primarily due to the largely inferior electronic component quality of on-line only sold brands. So you will need to be both really handy at regular bike repairs, and know a thing or two, regarding trouble-shooting electronics and software. Check around first before you buy on-line to make SURE you can get your e-bike serviced locally. (unless you are VERY handy with tools, and mechanically and electronically 'inclined')
Will it actually be a proper fit, and ride comfortably when it arrives ? Proper fit is second on your list of priorities, because if you don't buy an e-bike that fits you, it's doubtful you will ever feel comfortable riding it, especially over the longer distances most people plan on doing which is the inherent advantage of buying an e-bike in the first place. On-line sold brands rarely come in multiple frame sizes, and even then, one brand's 'large' may be the same as another brand's 'medium.' Stack and reach dimensions are one thing, but the geometry affects your fit too. You really do need to try an e-bike for proper fit.
What is the quality of the e-bike really like ? The fact remains, that the on-line sold 'brands' are not true brands, in the sense that they manufacture, engineer, or design the e-bike. Rather 90% of them are merely slapping a logo on an imported clone, that is fabricated by a 3rd party factory in Asia, that they don't own, nor do they have any control over quality, or engineering. So you need to see the brand in person, before you can determine the level of quality, and make sure that those on-line reviews that are so 'glowing' (none of these brands allow negative reviews to appear on their web-sites), are representative of what you are buying.
You can't get something for nothing. While this can be said for a lot of consumer goods, and we are all generally looking for the 'best deal', or 'lowest price', or 'best bang for our buck', with e-bikes you have very little in the way of perspective to go on, because they are so new to the US market. Suffice it to say though, you need to buy a grade A battery (Samsung, or Panasonic), and those are going to cost at least $300 to $500 on any decent e-bike, and the cost of the motor, the controls, and the re-design of the frame, is going to place the e-bike cost and profit that any seller needs to make, they need to price it up over $1000. Any e-bike priced at less than that at normal MSRP, is likely going to be severely compromised somewhere in the design build process.
But the on-line brand is 'eliminating the middle-man' so it will already be a better buy ? Well this is a very common notion, but often a mis-leading sales tactic used by on-line sold brands. The on-line 'brand' IS the middle man, and in fact adding very little to the value of the supply chain to build e-bike. They are marketing their wares, and importing the e-bikes from overseas, and getting it to your door-step, and that's just about all a middle man does. And they are buying the e-bike at HALF the price, they are selling it to you, which is a margin level that is unheard of for bikes or e-bikes that are of any quality, or sold locally and fully supported and serviced after the sale. Typically a dealer or a real OEM, is getting around a 25% to 35% margin. But the true and reputable e-bike dealer is set up to have local inventory, allow test rides, provide service and maintenance for your e-bike, and be an on-going resource. They are also trained, and if they are really top notch e-bike shop, they have LEVA certified e-bike technicians on their staff. So that on-line seller accusing others of being 'the middle man' is really nothing more than that too, and at best will send you some parts when you need to resolve an issue, and if you are not capable of trouble-shooting, you may be sent many parts that you pay for until you find a 'fix.' (hit or miss on solving your problem since the on-line vendor can't actually test or diagnose your e-bike issue in person)
What happens when that on-line brand disappears or goes belly up ? Well that is a significant and very real risk. E-bikes are very new to the US, and similar to the automotive industry in its infancy back in the early 1900's, e-bikes will ultimately go through the same sort of 'shake out.' Barriers to entry are very low for new 'logo-slapped on' brands to appear. You probably don't realize this, but there are over 300 'brands' of e-bikes marketed here in the US now. Most of these did not exist 5 years ago. The automotive industry in its early days also had more than 100 brands. And it wasn't long before most of those brands went by the way-side for many reasons, but principally that is what happens when a new technology or new industry emerges from being an 'early adopter' type technology to more of a 'main-stream' and well accepted commercially viable product as it were. So unfortunately many of these on-line only sold brands will be gone in not too many years from now, and unless you know how to pick the 'winners', you could have immense trouble sourcing any parts, or getting local service to support your e-bike after the company goes belly up. I get calls weekly from people who bought these on-line sold e-bikes only a few years ago, seeking help for a brand that already 'no longer exists.' If you buy from a local dealer, that dealer is likely going to be able to continue to support your needs for years, since the savvy e-bike committed dealer will be educated enough to source other electronic parts that will be compatible for your e-bike, as long as that dealer sold you the brand you bought in the first place. That may not always be the case, but having someone local can improve your odds of having the ability to keep your e-bike going for years.
On-line sold brand 'engineering' ? These on-line sold brands are buying e-bikes that are most often already 'designed' by these factory outlets in China. I use that term very loosely here. Because they are really mostly 'cloned' rather than engineered, as there are so many of these firms in China already building very inexpensive and very cheaply built e-bikes for the Chinese consumer. China is a very different market for e-bikes than here in the US. China's consumers are buying over 20 million e-bikes PER YEAR. Whereas here in the US we are buying maybe 600k to 700k e-bikes per year, and half that number only a couple years ago. The implications are that, the Chinese e-bike complex is made up of all sorts of very copy cat facilities, who are making frames and components as cheaply as they can, and they do no actual engineering in most cases, no R&D, and are selling their e-bikes for less than a third of what e-bikes are sold for here on average in the US. Quality control is largely an after thought - the Chinese consumer can throw the e-bike away and buy a new one, or scrounge for parts that are a lot more easily found due to the sheer volume of e-bikes sold and bought in China annually. We don't have that volume here and e-bikes aren't really very inexpensive here. Also, in most cases they are using lead acid batteries in China, so the controls are very different as are the safety aspects. Thus these same Chinese consumer factories, that are now looking to build for multiple 'logo's' promoting their wares in the US, are simply seeking a new market outside of their country, and hoping that something 'sticks' so they can make much higher profits than they ever could selling in their domestic market. Unfortunately multiple 'short cuts' are taken to build up what appears to be a decent e-bike. Since the importing on-line brands are focused only on wide margins, making a quick buck so they can get out quickly if they need to, often aren't even visiting the factories to negotiate specs and price, let alone inspect the products they are sourcing and drop shipping on your doorstep. Yes their price might be lower, but the quality will be too, especially on e-bikes priced below $ 1500. Quality e-bikes can be built for less than $1500, but make sure the brand you are buying OWNS their factory, does the actual engineering and quality control process, and owns every aspect of design and build process for the e-bike. It helps too, if that E-Bike OEM at the very least has bike building experience before they ever got into manufacturing e-bikes.
Is that 750 watt motor really a TRUE 750 watt motor ? This is where e-bike buying gets sort of complicated, and its unfortunate there are no certification outfits or a 'Consumers Reports' for e-bikes yet ? With on-line brands, there are a lot of 'games' they can play with their ratings, and you won't know any better since you can't actually try out their e-bike in person, and compare it to any locally sold brands built by tried and true manufacturers. Just using this as one example, but the most common tactic is to persuade you to buy theirs because you 'need' and they 'convince you' that a 750 watt motor is the most powerful you can buy. Well, the maximum legal limit by law is 750 watts. That's your first clue about knowing what game they are playing. Most people are perfectly fine and get plenty of power from a true 350 watt motor. But they get seduced by 'more power' is better. Technically, watts does not reflect what the real power delivered to the wheel will be, but the amount of work that a motor is 'capable' of doing. More often than not, these 750 watt motors consist of components (windings, magnets, etc) that are actually 350 watt motors in design, but sold as a '750 watt' rated motor. How can they do that and it be 'legit' ? Well its actually pretty easy, as they can send more current to a smaller motor, and then call it '750 watts.' While its true more current can be sent, it is not true that all 750 watt motors are 'equal' in torque delivered, magnet strength, and gear ratios. Thus to avoid this risk, and it is very real, you need to find a reputable brand and test ride it, and then find someone locally who had the brand you are considering, and compare their '750 watt' e-bike to a real '750 watt e-bike.' You will notice a major difference. So if power is really important to you, and you think you need something stronger than 350 watts or 500 watts, then save yourself a lot of disappointment, and try to find an e-bike locally that someone has, and compare it to other brands. Unfortunately, similar games are played with torque ratings, and also battery capacity ratings, and with controller outputs. ( If you question any of this, and you already bought one of those '750 watt' rated e-bikes on-line, bring it on by, and I will let you do a comparison against one of my REAL 500 watt e-bikes in a test ride. Or bring a friend's brand x, model y, by if you are thinking of buying one, and compare it to the brands I sell. I've personally researched more than 80 brands, and ridden 100's of models of e-bikes, before selecting the quality brands that I'm confident can be trusted in their stated ratings.)
Can e-bikes bought on-line ever be any good ? Its tough right now to generalize, because again the barriers to entry of creating and launching a new e-bike 'brand' are so very low. A couple of 20 something's can build a web-site, or have one built for them in a few days at very low cost, start taking 'pre-orders', and then order a container ship of e-bikes with their logo slapped on them, via Alibaba and they are in business. That's the vast majority of how these on-line brands started. I would suggest that if you are still 'stuck' on buying on-line for whatever your reason (maybe you had a bad experience at a local bike shop years ago or something along those lines?) you should probably at least stick to something that is priced above $2000, where you can see a series of higher quality components through-out on the e-bike, and again find someone local who has the brand you are considering, and give it a test ride.
Anyway, just some food for thought, before being tempted to buy that on-line sold brand that looks like 'such a deal !'
P.S. For a list of on-line brands you should probably avoid, and some that are 'ok', send me an email at Mikes@E-bikes.com and request the list.