Carmakers chase female buyers

Would you like the pink polka-dot seat cover? Honda, Toyota try appealing to young women

by Makiko Kitamura and Kae Inoue

Bloomberg

More than 300 young women, sporting curly chestnut brown-dyed hair, heavy makeup and manicured nails crowded into a Toyota showroom, peering at a Prius painted candy-apple red and decorated with rhinestones and heart-shaped pink stickers.

“I’m not really interested in cars,” said Erika Horiki, 23, who wore a cowboy hat, fringed boots and denim shorts to the Odaiba, Tokyo, showroom. “But by making us think these cars are cute, it’s a step toward becoming curious.”

Cars have lost their “cool factor” in Japan among young people, contributing to a decades-long decline in sales. To attract women, Toyota Motor Corp. came up with the DecoPrius, inspired by the jewel-covered DecoDen mobile phones. Honda Motor Co. has enlisted the help of Cozy Tomato, a book and magazine illustrator, for storytelling events centered around cars for young mothers and their children.

“If we don’t challenge ourselves and do something that may seem weird, there’s no point,” said Tomio Tsukagoshi, a spokesman for Amlux Toyota Co., which manages the showroom. “We need to be attracting these types of people.”

Cars ranked 17th among the 25 most popular products and services among current university students, according to a survey by the Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association in March. Computers, clothes, portable music players, communications devices such as mobile phones and travel topped the list.

Cars ranked much higher, seventh, among respondents in their 40s and 50s who were asked to reflect on their preferences as college students, with electronic devices ranking lower.

Toyota’s DecoPrius was also promoted by Shiho Fujita, 24, a celebrity entrepreneur and self-proclaimed “gyaru,” Japanese slang for “chick.” Her views on cars are what Toyota is trying to change.

“If I was with my friends and my boyfriend pulled up in a car to pick me up, I’d feel kind of embarrassed,” she said. The idea that having a car is cool “is kind of outdated.”

Neither JAMA nor the Japan Automobile Dealers Association breaks down sales by age group. Among women, 58 percent of college-age respondents said they have a driver’s license, compared with 65 percent of 40- and 50-year-olds when they were students.

Demand for vehicles in Japan peaked at 7.78 million units in 1990 and is expected to drop to 4.3 million this fiscal year, according to JAMA. The declining birthrate is part of the reason: Japan is the world’s most rapidly aging country, with more than one in five people older than 65 and the lowest ratio of citizens younger than 15. China surpassed Japan as the world’s second-largest auto market in 2006.

“Japan is becoming more and more of a mature market and public transportation is also well developed,” said Honda Motor Co. Executive Vice President Koichi Kondo.

About 90 percent of Prius buyers are men and about 70 percent are in their 50s, according to Yoshiaki Kawano, an auto sales analyst at CSM Worldwide in Tokyo.

Not all women spurn cars. Miou Shirayama, a 37-year-old doctor and housewife, insisted her husband buy a Toyota Estima minivan to ferry around their three children.

“If you have children, you need a car,” Shirayama said. “I have the right to make the final decision because in our household as in most families, women control the purse strings.”

At Honda, showroom staff are targeting mothers with Cozy Tomato’s illustrations, which are also used in books on child-rearing. The monthly storytelling event at its showroom in the Aoyama district in Tokyo explains the workings of the hydrogen-powered FCX Clarity fuel-cell vehicle.

Honda also caters to female tastes by offering ways to customize and decorate cars with items such as pink polka-dot seat covers.

The decline in car sales has forced automakers to reconsider the number of models and variations sold in the domestic market, compared with overseas.

Honda sells 28 models in Japan, compared with 18 in the U.S. and nine in China, the two biggest car markets. Toyota sells 59 models, not including its Lexus brand, in Japan, 17 in the U.S. and 19 in China. Nissan Motor Co. sells 28 models domestically, 19 excluding its Infiniti brand in North America and 11 in China.

“I definitely want to cut down the number of models,” Hiroshi Kobayashi, Honda’s Japan sales head, said.

The company plans to eliminate some of the 10 models exclusive to Japan over the next five or six years, he said. The move would help Honda cut development costs, which run from around ¥10 billion per model to adapt an existing platform to more than ¥50 billion for a luxury model, according to Credit Suisse Group AG.

Carmakers don’t expect the market to ever return to the demand of 20 years ago. Fujita, the woman who doesn’t want her boyfriend to show up in a car, occasionally does drive herself when visiting friends in her hometown. However, her experience there is the ultimate in uncool for a hip Tokyo girl — she borrows her dad’s minivan.