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“Automotive design isn’t just about creativity,” says Chris Hostetter. “It’s more about responsiveness to the customer.”

by Chris Hosetter
Vice President of Advance Design

Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A.

Hostetter, Vice President of Advanced Product Strategy and Product Planning for Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., Inc., says most product improvements and breakthrough developments are made in response to consumer requests for certain features or performance.

“We survey consumers extensively, gathering information and preferences from various demographic groups in proportion to their influence on car buying,” he says. “And since women buy more than half of all new cars, and influence the purchases of 80 percent or more, they predominate among our survey respondents.”
Hostetter says the company’s special studies of values and lifestyle issues give it the chance to connect Toyota and Lexus vehicles with various ethnic, gender and age groups. “We find, for example, that sophisticated, upscale, well educated professional women tend to express more interest in the environmental effects, safety and comfort of a vehicle, whereas an equivalent group of men would value a car’s power more highly.”

Toyota’s research indicates that men show more interest in features relating to performance, such as sport suspension; alternative fuels such as fuel cells; advanced technologies like satellite radio; and utility features such as tow hitches.  The same studies show women are more interested in and willing to pay for features relating to safety, such as airbags, and passenger comfort features like rear passenger climate controls or a sunroof/moonroof.

Hostetter says women also tend to be less willing than men to endure what people in the car business call “NVH,” for “noise, vibration and harshness.”

Catherine Scott, vice president of Western Digital Corporation and an ardent bicyclist, says she needed a vehicle that could secure her valuable bike inside, but she didn’t want a truck or anything that drove like one. “I found the Toyota Highlander,” she says. “It holds my bike just fine and gives me car-like handling and smoothness. In addition, I don’t have to climb up into it, as I would a truck-based vehicle.”

Features That Women Favor

Some vehicle features may be popular with women even though they weren’t designed with gender in mind. The Lexus RX 300, the luxury sport utility vehicle that led the so-called “crossover vehicle” trend, has a space that’s perfect for a briefcase in the place where most SUVs have a shift lever and console. Women comment frequently on the thoughtfulness of that feature. In the all-new 2004 RX 330, a console can be used in that space or slid back to make room for a briefcase, handbag or package. The RX 330 also has a power rear liftgate, thanks to suggestions contributed mainly by women survey respondents.

“We find that people of all kinds buy vehicles of all kinds,” Hostetter says. “But we do exhaustive in-home, in-car observational research using innovative market research techniques. We follow focus-group members, sometimes for a whole day, to see how they live, how they drive, how they use a car, how they feel about various lifestyle issues. This gives us a lot of information about consumers and their car buying interests, but it isn’t skewed to one gender group or the other.”

This research showed that most of Toyota’s Sienna minivans were being driven by women, and that families wanted power rear doors to ease the pick-up-and-drop-off hassles associated with passengers’ activities. So, power was added to permit the driver to stay in the seat while boarding or discharging passengers.

Women asked for that feature and they get the benefit of that feature because they’re the principal drivers,” says Hostetter.

Another example is the ‘hip height’ designed into the Toyota Highlander, the Lexus RX 300 and new RX 330, he says. “That was done to accommodate drivers who want the visibility that goes with higher seating, but don’t want to make a big step up into their vehicles. Some others say they don’t want to slither down into a really low vehicle. That goes for both men and women, but the positives we get on surveys show that women appreciate this hip-height selection the most.”

Still another example is the RX Hybrid, a vehicle scheduled for introduction next year. It will bring to the popular Lexus sport utility a new, high-performance hybrid powerplant with even greater environmental features than Toyota’s current-generation Prius, the world’s best-selling hybrid car.

Hostetter says he is sure this vehicle will resonate well with female drivers because of its combination of the comfort, luxury and environmentally advanced performance favored by women in surveys and focus groups.

Among new safety features, which are more often mentioned by women, Lexus now offers side-curtain airbags for both front and rear occupants of the new RX 330 and seat-mounted side impact airbags up front.

Toyota Certified Used Vehicles Meet Women’s Needs

Toyota designed its certified used vehicle program in ways that bring praise from women. Just over half of the nearly one million Toyota Certified Used Vehicles sold by Toyota dealers have been bought by women, whereas women buy about 45 percent of all used vehicles.

Owner surveys show marked differences between the ways male and female owners value various aspects of the used-vehicle program. Women rate the 160-point quality assurance inspection and the six-year/100,000mile limited powertrain warranty, for example, much higher than do men. And free roadside assistance is thought to be extremely or very important by 72 percent of women owners, versus 62 percent of men.

“The features that women appear to value most highly are those related to personal safety and vehicle reliability,” says Jill Christy, marketing operations manager in Toyota’s certified used vehicle department. “They tell us they don’t want a used car to disappoint them on a dark road in the middle of the night. They want peace of mind, and this program provides it.”

Improving the Sales Process

Because car buying is related not only to the vehicle but also to the sales experience as well, Toyota coordinates that part of the process carefully. In training courses offered by the University of Toyota, dealer salespeople are shown how to create a gender-neutral sales situation.

“When it’s truly gender-neutral, that’s a huge improvement,” says Bob Zeinstra, associate dean of the University and head of its School of Retail and Professional Development. “We used to hear women say, ‘The salesman looked right through me, and introduced himself to my husband.’ Or, they’d complain that the salesperson kept asking a woman’s husband about his commute to work, even though the couple had come in to buy a car for her.”

Then there’s the matter of asking who is actually going to select the new car. Particularly insulting to women, Zeinstra says, was the salesperson’s habit of asking whether a woman wanted to bring her husband in to look at the car – discounting the possibility that she was the decision maker.

“Every demographic fact about women makes them the ideal customers,” he says, “from education, where they earn the majority of bachelors and masters degrees, to income, where they bring in half or more of the pay in 55 percent of U.S. households, and to business ownership, where they control about 40 percent of all businesses and start 70 percent of the new ones. We know that 75 percent of women executives in Fortune 500 companies out-earn their husbands, and we know they make 80 percent of all household purchasing decisions, including 65 percent of the cars.”

“Today,” he says, “we teach salespeople a consultative approach in which they listen, ask questions and confirm their understanding. Then they educate the customer about vehicle and features that meet the needs they’ve described. And none of this has to do with gender.”

Toyota and Lexus salespeople are taught to explain the purchase process to the customer, which helps to ease showroom anxieties, especially when questions are organized and presented.

“If I can generalize at all about the sales process,” says Zeinstra, “it’s to say that men are a bit more prone to haggling, whereas women seem to appreciate a reasoned approach to pricing, with every feature explained in terms of benefits and value.”

Zeinstra says salespeople are told to expect women customers to be more exacting consumers who ask more questions and factor in more elements in their decision-making. And in providing more complete information to women customers, he says, the salesperson will find them twice as likely to refer other customers.

“Learning to treat customers even-handedly has taken a long time in the car business, which has been male-oriented for almost a century,” he adds. “But this is more than good manners – it’s also good business, considering who our primary customers are.”

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