Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc. has unveiled an ambitious plan to help dealers sell cars over the Internet.
Through its new Office of the Web, Toyota has centralized its e-commerce activities. Its mission: Entrench the company in the virtual marketplace and head off third-party rivals - without alienating Toyota and Lexus dealers.
As part of the program, Toyota is preparing to launch a national Web-based system to funnel sales leads to local dealers. The company also is working with one of its regional dealer associations on a pilot Web-based selling program. The company has repeatedly said it doesn't want to get into the retail business because its dealers are better at it.
Dave Illingworth, Toyota's senior vice president for planning and development, called the new Internet organization the 'final resting place' of Toyota's New Era business strategy. That initiative began in 1997 to develop ways to boost customer retention and create a nationwide virtual marketplace.
One of New Era's missions was to create 'advocates for life' from Toyota's customer base.
6 TEAMS, 1 MISSION
The Office of the Web is organized into six teams: business-to-customer; business-to-business; policy and governance; innovations; customer relationship management; and Web technology. Their shared mission is to bring consistency to Toyota's collection of Internet initiatives, which serve customers, dealers and suppliers.
The new office will be run by a yet-to-be-named vice president who will report to Illingworth.
In an interview last week, Illingworth said he is leaving his hiring options open. But he will likely look outside the automotive industry for someone who can bring a 'fresh perspective' to the job.
E-commerce is a hot topic with manufacturers, dealers and suppliers all turning to the Internet to attract customers, meet their needs and expectations, and improve bottom lines.
The movement has left dealers feeling especially vulnerable to being squeezed out if manufacturers eventually use the Internet to sell directly to customers.
Toyota's Office of the Web will oversee the coming lead referral system, which should be operating early next year, Toyota spokesman Mike Michels said.
Information about customers who visit Toyota's corporate site will be forwarded to local dealer associations. Each association could then have its own online selling program.
Toyota is working with the Western Washington Toyota Dealers Association to develop a pilot selling program there. It may let customers shop simultaneously at every Toyota dealership in the region by offering vehicle availability and pricing information throughout the region.
Details are being worked out, Illingworth said. One challenge, for instance, is pricing. If consumers have access to pricing information from competing dealers, what will prevent shoppers from playing dealers against each other?
'We might have the pricing answer' but it's too early to be more specific, Illingworth said. The program could be structured so 'competition could take place without creating more problems,' he said.
The pilot program is scheduled to begin next spring. It is an example of how Toyota is working with its retailers to develop 'win-win' e-commerce selling strategies, Illingworth said.
Other pilot programs have been tried in San Diego, Phoenix, Washington, D.C., and other markets, he said. But what makes sense in San Diego may be folly in Philadelphia, so e-commerce programs must be designed to fit specific regional or market needs.
Said Illingworth: 'It is unlikely we would find a template that would work nationally in all markets.'