Fifteen Kansas City and St. Louis area Toyota dealers are among the very first to participate in a new version of the automaker's innovative Internet retailing program Buyatoyota.com, now underway in western Washington state. Dealer groups in five additional cities; Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C. will join the pilot program next month.

Buyatoyota.com (www.buyatoyota.com) enables customers to search an area's pooled inventory; check the availability of new and used vehicles; obtain pricing information; and initiate a purchase or lease transaction with a participating local dealer. Toyota worked hand-in-hand with its dealer association in western Washington to create the online system.

"What sets Buyatoyota.com apart from all other car buying Web sites is our 'pooled availability' inventory model," says Keith St. Clair, Toyota Motor Sales national business-to-consumer e-commerce manager. "Customers get a more accurate picture of vehicle availability and we found that has a compelling impact on local dealers' ability to do business and Toyota's ability to gain market share."

Nineteen dealers in the Seattle/Tacoma area introduced the web site last April. Its success convinced the company to extend the pilot to additional markets. "We¹ve been very pleased with what we¹ve learned from the pilot program," says Mr. St. Clair. "We can point to a positive impact on sales and a positive impact on consumer behavior."

During the first three months of the test in the western Washington market:

Buyatoyota.com received more than 50,000 unique visitors with 25 page views per visitor.

Among users surveyed, 96% said they'd found the site useful and 95% said they would recommend it to others.

4.4% of the site's visitors resulted in trackable sales leads, four times higher than typical dealer or manufacturer retail sites.

The total closing ratio for new vehicle leads was approximately 21%, or 7% of all retail sales in the western Washington market.

The success of Buyatoyota.com during the initial pilot phase exceeded Internet sales leads. In surveys of all regional Toyota buyers, 18% had used the site and 86% of them said it "positively influenced their purchase experience." Another 58% of all buyers who used the site said it influenced their decision to purchase a Toyota. "Consumers have told us that the content of the site is very relevant and very useful," says Mr. St. Clair.

The new version of the site combines cleaner design and navigation with improved site performance, making it easier for customers to print out incentive coupons, access purchase information and locate dealers. Buyatoyota.com operates from a single web address. Users in each of the three markets will be able to access their local version of the site simply by entering their zip code. It also has a flexible infrastructure that can be tailored to suit the needs of regional dealer groups.

"The site expedites the sales process by giving customers reasonable expectations about vehicle availability and pricing," Mr. St. Clair says. "It positions the dealer to be a comprehensive solution provider, not a price quote vending machine."

The additional markets being tested are diverse and will test the flexibility of the site and its improved design. If the Buyatoyota.com pilot program continues to perform well it will be rolled out nationally, beginning later this spring. In the future, customers will be able to access the site through Toyota's principle corporate site, www.toyota.com, which attracts 2 million visitors a month.