The spacious and flexible Riese & Müller Packster models introduced last year are already selling like hotcakes for having more space than their brother model, the Load. So how come the newest Packster version is super small?
Riese & Müller’s CEO Sandra Wolf knows why.
But before we head over to my interview with the strategic brain behind the explosive growth of the German premium brand, let’s have a brief recap on Riese & Müllers recent history.
And let’s start with the crazy thing they did back in 2013:
They axed every model that didn’t have an electric motor from their legendary line of touring and city bikes. From one model year to the next, they were all gone.
Yep, Riese & Müller, the expensive feinschmecker brand, renowned for their full suspended touring bikes and folding bikes, loved by thousands of loyal customers – suddenly decided to go all in and join the cheaters on the dark side.
At least that’s what a whole bunch of their conservative dealers must have thought.
After twenty years in the premium bike business, Riese & Müller shocked the industry by going all electric on everything but the Birdy folding bikes. They had already seen how their few electric models took off, and simply went for it.
Looking back now, everyone can see that they obviously knew what they were doing:
The bike sales for Riese & Müller has grown by incredible 50-60% every year since 2012, measured by number of bikes sold.
By now they have grown to 270 employees in their 6 000 square meter bike factory in Weiterstadt, close to Darmstadt where it all began back in 1993, but it isn’t enough: The meteoric rise in electric bike demand is the reason why Riese & Müller just began building a new, green and clean production plant that will be ready in early 2019.
But let’s switch back to 2013 again, a year which brought another big decision at Riese & Müller:
They decided to enter the cargo bike market with the full suspension Load model, a pretty radical concept that is still unique. The Load is a sweet riding bike, but unfortunately, it’s also too small for a lot of people with two bigger kids or loads of stuff.
That’s why R&M introduced the Packster in 2016 – with a much wider cargo box, and even two versions: One with 60 cm and another with 80 cm length of the cargo bed. If you are gonna compete with a big car, you need space, right?
Soo… What’s up with this? A much smaller and narrower Packster for 2018? But why?
Being a sucker for cargo space, I couldn’t quite wrap my head around this idea when I saw the Packster 40 being launched a few weeks ago: A 40 cm long cargo deck, with a super slim box. Why would anyone choose a cargo bike with less cargo space than any of the others?
I sent the question straight to the source – to one of the brains behind this bike:
Dr. Sandra Wolf is one of the three CEOs at Riese & Müller – along with the founders Markus Riese and Heiko Müller (her husband) – and she is also the Chief Strategy Officer responsible for growing the company into a new era.
Being an accomplished business graduate, Sandra joined the Riese & Müller team in 2013 – to strengthen the strategic leadership and complement the two engineers at the helm.
She holds a Master of Business Administration from the Universities of Augsburg and Berkeley (USA) and a PhD in economics on the topic of «signaling family firm identity» (sic!).
They all share the CEO title, with Riese focusing on product research and development and Müller taking care of the multitude of daily operations.
Here is the email conversation I had with Sandra Wolf this week:
CARGOBIKE MAGAZINE: Thanks for taking the time! What made you feel the need for a shorter and slimmer Packster?
SANDRA WOLF: One of the initial inspirational elements was a handbag. I am a woman who loves handbags and I was fed up of crumpling my nice handbag into a functional pannier. This was something I was always complaining about and that honestly kept me away from constantly riding bikes.
When I started to ride my Load, I immediately loved that I can throw my handbag in the front, just like when entering a car and placing the handbag on the passenger side. This simple use case was discussed in one of our product development workshops, and later on with other people who all confirmed this ease of handling.
Together with the need to develop a lighter version of the Packster and the target to increase our cargo range, we came up with the Packster 40 idea. We all felt immediately that the Packster 40 is a wonderful product and a crossover from E-Bike to cargo bike that it can bring more people on the bike, which is great.
CARGOBIKE MAGAZINE: So who is the main target group for the Packster 40?
SANDRA WOLF: I would say that cargo bikes in general do not have that one specific target group. We see a general movement to cargo bikes in urban mobility, especially if you look at target groups that plan to ditch one car and to live a more sustainable lifestyle.
However, the Packster 40, the shorter and slimmer version of our Packster family is supposed to attract people who want a cargo bike, but do not have the space to store it or want to commute and need to take it to the train.
It is also an attractive vehicle for people who rather want to have an agile bike or want to cross from a normal bike or e-bike to a cargo bike. It is for families that mainly transport one child or for people who just want to have a bigger trunk and not only one basket. Basically, it is for everybody.
CARGOBIKE MAGAZINE: How will you describe the public response and reception for the Packster model after the launch last year?
SANDRA WOLF: The response to the Packster concept is tremendous, not only in Central Europe, but all around the world. It is interesting to see that the Packster seems to be the right product for almost everybody – from young people who want to have ditch their car to families that are looking for a sustainable lifestyle to cities that use the Packster as a public transport service. The Packster seems to be the ideal sharing product which is something great to observe.
CARGOBIKE MAGAZINE: Do you find that the Packster customer group differ from the Load customers in any particular way?
SANDRA WOLF: The concept “cargo” is similar, but we see slight differences. The Packster is supposed to be more functional as the Load. The Load attracts people who are looking for a sportive ride and a specific aesthetics. We find that younger target groups (18+) feel much more attracted by the Load than by the Packster. According to our research the Load is a more trendy vehicle, less functional, even though both products serve similar needs.
CARGOBIKE MAGAZINE: Regarding the Packster 40: The rear facing position for the kid in the box is in line with the modern philosophy of child seats in cars, which is regarded as safer for the neck in case of an impact. Was that the main reason for this idea?
SANDRA WOLF: When developing a child seat – no matter which vehicle we are talking about – safety always is a main reason for any development, also with regards to the Packster 40. We wouldn’t say that it is the safer position, but it is safe. However, we also developed this version of a child seat as it best used the little space while generating a highly comfortable seat and as a parent you just like it if you can communicate with your child. Our kids who were used to ride in the Load and the Packster had to get acquainted to this position, but now love to talk to me and see me during our ride. It has something of togetherness which I personally like a lot.
CARGOBIKE MAGAZINE: Cycling parents are used to a pretty high level of seat comfort from the child trailers, with padded seats and neck rests etc – making it possible for the kids to sleep comfortably. By comparison, many cargobikes are very simple in the seat bench department. Do you feel there is a need to improve cargo bikes in that direction?
SANDRA WOLF: The development of functional and (talking about child seats) comfortable cargo accessories takes a high portion of our work in the R&D team. So yes, I definitely see that improvements will lead into this direction. However, at Riese & Müller we also see that even in a family with little kids the cargo bike is not only a kids-parents vehicle, but has to fulfill many other needs during one day, one week or one month. In some families the needs even change from rider to rider sharing one cargo bike, e.g. father, mother, 16 year old daughter. So we rather think about versatile, flexible solutions that are able to give 24 hour happiness with a cargo bike.
CARGOBIKE MAGAZINE: A lot of the new cargo bikes this year is compact versions, both from you, Tern and Babboe – and also small German startups like Sblocs, Muli and Chike. Does this mean that the general public are put off by longer and more bulky models, and that smaller size is the way to go forward in this market?
SANDRA WOLF: Smaller cargo bikes are an addition, not a substitution for longer and more bulky models. It just means that cargo bikes are about to play a strong role in urban mobility and that differentiation has started.
CARGOBIKE MAGAZINE: Speaking of differentiation: You had a longtail bike – the Transporter – briefly on the market back in 2013, and a lot of bike brands have tilting three-wheel cargo bikes coming out these days. How does Riese und Müller look at these options today?
SANDRA WOLF: With regards to stability, riding safety and dynamics as well sportiness, a three wheel cargo bike has never been an option for Riese & Müller. It basically just doesn’t fit to our DNA. The longtail has unfortunately not been accepted by our target group or maybe we were too early with this concept. It is a great vehicle in my eyes and reflects a distinct, fun and easy lifestyle. It is about sharing the space you have which is kind of nice. We should think about it again. I’ll keep you posted…
CARGOBIKE MAGAZINE: Thanks, I’d love to see you make a MkII Transporter, as I’m a longtail rider myself! What was your personal relation to cargo bikes before Riese & Müller started to develop the Load building up to the 2013 launch?
SANDRA WOLF: I have always been a heavy user in terms of cycling. To be honest, before we developed the Load I suspiciously looked at cargo bikes and always thought – even being a mother of two kids – that the existing models do not fit to my personal lifestyle. Furthermore, non-electric models were not an option for me, as riding with two kids and the grocery for a four-person household is no fun at all.
When I first saw the Load, I was sceptical. Even though I am an experienced, sporty and fast rider, I thought that I may not be able to maneuver the bike with the kids. I guess that this is the fear of many parents. Luckily, I had the chance to sufficiently test ride the bike and today I am cargo-addicted.
CARGOBIKE MAGAZINE: Which bikes do you ride most often today?
SANDRA WOLF: I personally ride a Load HS (high speed, max 45 km/h) and I definitely ditched the car. It is so much fun and with so much daily functionality that I don’t need a car within a radius of 20 km any more. If there is one moment in a month where I think of taking the car (because it is raining, too cold, to floppy etc.), the kids force me to ride the bike.
This shows how important mobility socialization is and that kids can definitely make a difference. They love to ride in a cargo bike. Sitting in a seat in the back of the car, hermetically sealed from nature, parents on the phone, standing in a traffic jam, looking for a parking spot is never an option for them.
CARGOBIKE MAGAZINE: A few years have passed since Riese & Müller decided to switch to 100% electric for all your models, apart from the Birdy. I assume that was a pretty dramatic decision to make – and I don’t know if any other brand have dared do the same. How do you look at that move today? Did it pay off, and if so: How?
SANDRA WOLF: For Riese & Müller this decision was the best entrepreneurial decision ever. It was dramatic in a way, but it also was the clear “yes” to a movement and to new mobility. Many things are much easier for us now, e.g. development and production processes. As a dedicated e-bike specialist you also get higher attention from the outside and for many suppliers we are a great technology partner. It paid off in any case. We have a clear mission «to be the maker of tomorrow’s mobility» and this is a sake.
CARGOBIKE MAGAZINE: Thanks, I’ll be happy to follow Riese & Müller’s next steps, and I’m crossing my fingers for a new longtail bike rom you in the future!