TOKYO - When Autobytel Japan KK opened for business, more than 30 percent of the 25,000 requests for new-vehicle pricing information it received in two weeks were for Toyota vehicles.
Even though Toyota Motor Corp. covets those young, computer-literate buyers, it was not interested. At the carmaker's direction, no Toyota dealer has signed up with either Autobytel Japan or its rival, CarPoint KK.
Toyota has decided not to embrace Internet retailing because of the implicit threat it poses to the automaker's control over new-car distribution.
'We want to protect our distribution chain,' said Toyota spokesman Tetsuo Kitagawa. 'We want to do it the Toyota way,' by sending web surfers to the company's corporate website or to its dedicated Gazoo kiosks.
Gazoo terminals, which offer computerized information on new cars, options and the location of Toyota dealers, are in more than 3,000 convenience stores and video-rental stores across Japan, as well as at dealerships.
Toyota is not alone. No Honda Motor Co. dealers have linked with the either of the services, which began Japanese operations last November.
However, several Japanese and foreign car companies in Japan have welcomed CarPoint and Autobytel. Nissan Motor Co., for example, is trying to control Internet retailing by directing all of its dealers to CarPoint. To date, 184 of Nissan's 200 sales companies have logged on to CarPoint.
With the exception of Nissan, the companies who have joined the two e-services are either importers or smaller carmakers, such as Mazda. In theory, automakers cannot forbid their dealers from signing up with CarPoint, any more than they can forbid them from becoming a Ford franchisee.
But the theory and reality often differ.
'Legally, there are things (Toyota) can't say or do, but it still has a strong influence' through the Toyota dealers' association, said Saburo Kikuchi, president and chief executive of CarPoint KK.
Toyota maintains 'rigid territorial control' over its five distribution channels, said Yoshikuni Kato, executive vice president and chief operating officer at Autobytel Japan.
'In the USA, Autobytel can give a dealer a larger territory than he has been assigned. In Japan, we basically need to follow the territorial assignment. We can't tell dealers, `You can get a bigger territory'|' by using the Autobytel service, he said.
In July 1999, Autobytel started its Japan marketing efforts with courtesy visits to the manufacturers. 'Our intention is not to break up the existing system but to coexist or co-prosper with the existing system,' Kato said.
Web retailing could help make Japan's notoriously inefficient car dealers more profitable, he argued. Besides, a shopper who compared different makers' models at an independent one-stop website might decide to buy a Toyota car.
Toyota didn't agree with that argument. Toyota spokesman Kitagawa said the company would prefer that comparison shoppers first log on to Nissan's website and gather information on their car of choice, then log on to Toyota's site and do likewise.
'From my personal point of view, they don't understand the Internet. The concept of the Internet is open,' said CarPoint's Kikuchi.