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GM, partners form e-link in Japan

BuyPower Japan
The Japanese-language Web site has been designed to
  • Sell Isuzu, Suzuki, Subaru, Opel, Saab, Cadillac and Chevrolet

  • Unite GM and all 3 of its Japanese partners in a project for the first time

  • Shift the alliance's focus from bilateral product and technology ventures to a coordinated effort to reach retail customers

  • TOKYO - General Motors and its three Japanese partners -- Isuzu Motors Ltd., Suzuki Motor Corp., and Subaru-maker Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd. -- launched a joint e-business initiative here last week that marks the first time the four have worked together on a project.

    Until now, alliance efforts were bilateral between GM and one of its partners.

    "This unprecedented move de-monstrates the power of the alliances," said Rudolph Schlais, GM group vice president and president of GM Asia Pacific.

    A new joint-venture company, Japan AutoWeb Services Inc. (JAWS), launched a Japanese-language version of GM's BuyPower Web site. It will develop Internet-based technologies and has access to GM's e-business experience and tools, including OnStar, which is not available in Japan.

    BuyPower Japan is a fairly plain-vanilla service. It offers prices and dealer referrals.

    It does not offer the extras that other Japanese carmakers' Web sites have used to lure surfer-shoppers, such as unique colors or limited-edition models.

    Mazda Motor Corp., for example, allows Internet shoppers to configure a Miata with a sporty suspension and luxury interior, a combination not otherwise available in dealerships.

    Power of multibranding

    BuyPower Japan also is a PC-oriented online automotive shopping engine, even though the dominant Internet model in Japan is based on handheld, largely mobile phone-oriented Web access.

    But BuyPower Japan offers one notable difference: multibranding. It allows Japanese consumers to research and configure vehicles from any of seven brands: Suzuki, Subaru, Isuzu, Opel, Saab, Chevrolet and Cadillac.

    At the site (www.buypower.co.jp), visitors can shop by brand, lifestyle or vehicle type. After clicking on "marine and winter sports" in the "lifestyle" section, for example, a shopper can scroll through listings on two Subaru models, three Suzukis, one Saab, three Opels, four Isuzus and three Chevrolets.

    That type of multibrand approach is rare in Japan.

    Toyota Motor Corp., for example, has kept its dealers from competing e-retailing outfits such as Autobytel Japan that would allow comparison shopping across brands, preferring instead to promote its own Gazoo.com Web site, the pre-eminent automotive retailing Web site in Japan.

    "There may be a possibility that people will pick other brands than Subarus on the Web site," said Shinichi Murata, a Fuji Heavy spokesman. "But the merit of this service should be bigger than such concerns because it could allow us to access a huge number of potential customers."

    Subaru has not set any sales target for the Web joint venture, he said.

    GM strongly positioned

    Takeshi Irisawa, an analyst at Marusan Securities Co., said he sees little chance for the GM affiliates to cannibalize each other's sales through the Web venture because their vehicles won't compete directly. "It puts distinctive vehicles together," he said. "In this sense, this service may be more interesting than what Toyota does on its own."

    GM owns 49 percent of Isuzu and 20 percent of both Suzuki and Fuji Heavy.

    Taken together, the Japanese makers' market share in Japan, plus the much smaller share of GM's import brands, give the four companies 17 percent of the Japanese market, second only to the Toyota Group.

    JAWS will be owned 60.2 percent by GM and 19.9 percent each by Suzuki and Fuji Heavy. It is capitalized at 1.13 billion yen, or $9.4 million at current exchange rates.

    Asked in an interview what would be the next project for the alliance partners, Schlais said, "Using the customer base that's there."

    GM and its partners want to take advantage of the 12 million vehicles they have on Japan's roads. Thus, if the owner of a Suzuki Kei minivehicle was in the market for a mid-sized or larger sport-utility, the makers want to steer him to an Isuzu or Chevrolet model.

    GM's Opel brand was Japan's automotive leader on the Web, having launched the first site of any auto brand in Japan. But GM has slipped behind Toyota's highly successful Gazoo.com site.

    GM had sought to be allowed to sell its vehicles on Gazoo.com, with no success. Schlais denied that the creation of JAWS and BuyPower Japan necessarily means that GM has abandoned its efforts to join Gazoo.com.

    You can reach James B. Treece at jtreece@crain.com

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