“Why does Toyota have so many dealership chains in Japan?” you may have asked yourself at some point, “And why do certain dealers sell only certain models?” It’s all very confusing. Well, as of last month, if you’re buying a Toyota in Japan, you will no longer have to go through its byzantine network of showrooms to figure out who sells what. Say goodbye to the various Netz, Toyopet, Corolla, and Toyota Store chains. At last, everything is being unified under the Toyota brand, as the last vestiges of Japan’s Bubble Era auto sales traditions dies for good.
During Japan’s post-war economic boom times, Japan’s carmakers went nuts with various sales channels as the selection of models increased. Each channel would have a different selection, sometimes grouped together under a common theme (sportiness!) or marketed towards a specific demographic (the youths!).
It was hard to keep track of which dealer you had to visit to buy the car you wanted, but it’s also the reason why we have different models with minor variations like the Sprinter Trueno and Corolla Levin, or entirely separate model names based on the same chassis like the Celica and Carina. Toyota probably did the most to differentiate their offerings, but even then there were models, like the Supra, which were available at all dealerships.
Starting in May 2020, however, all dealerships (except for Lexus) began revamping their systems to handle the sales of all Toyota models. In commemoration of the passing of this strange and perplexing system, here’s a brief history of Toyota sales channels.
In the beginning, there was only one. Toyota Stores were established in 1946 as the lone sales channel for everything Toyota Motor Corporation made, This was at a time (the early 1950s) when the lineup was limited to a handful of models and most Japanese people weren’t yet buying cars. In the 1960s, Japan’s rapid growth spurred private car ownership, and it became impossible for these small stores to handle the increased activity.
In 1956, the Toyopet Store was created to handle sales of the Toyopet SKB truck (later renamed Toyoace). The Toyota Store would focus on selling premium cars like the Crown, while Toyopet would handle some of the lower end cars and trucks.
The 1961 debut of the compact Toyota Publica not only added a model, but a new class of car to the Toyota lineup. Thus, the Publica Store was launched at the same time, marketing to people who had never owned a car. It even helped promote car ownership by advocating for getting your driver’s license and offering easy to manage loans.
However, the Publica didn’t turn out to be the hot seller Toyota was expecting. Toyota had outlined an initial monthly target of 3,000 units, growing to 10,000 eventually, but initial sales barely topped 2,000 before flattening out to around 1,600.
The 1966 launch of the Corolla saved the Publica dealers, as the car quickly skyrocketed to about 18,000 sales per month. It was said that 1.3 million people visited Publica Stores to inquire about the new 1100cc car, which had arrived just in time for Japan’s newly constructed expressways. According to Toyota, this was the moment that the company truly felt the “Era of the Car” had dawned in Japan.
In fact, demand was so great that Toyota launched a third sales channel, simply called the Toyota Auto Store, in 1967. This was due primarily to customer demand for a sports model, so when the Toyota Sprinter launched in April 1968, it became the flagship model of the Toyota Auto Stores. The fastback bodied car claimed a 5 kph faster top speed than the Corolla Sedan, giving the Toyota Auto Store a youthful, sporty image as it focused on younger customers.
In 1969 the Publica Store was renamed the Corolla Store to reflect the newfound success of what would eventually be the best selling model name in the world. When the Sprinter became its own model in 1970, Toyota Auto Stores gained the exclusive rights to sell it, marking the first example of the “let’s swap some different lights on it and call it by another name” strategy that would define Toyotas for decades to come.
Are you following along? So far, we have four sales channels: Toyota, Toyota Auto, Toyopet, and Corolla stores. On April 1, 1980 ToMoCo launched yet another one, called Vista. Its exclusive models included the aptly named Toyota Vista, a light-swap version of the Camry, the MR2, and eventually Aristo.
The Vista stores offered services the others didn’t. Until then, in typical Japanese customer service fashion, dealers would bring cars to your house for a test drive, and deliver them to you at home once you pulled the trigger. Vista stores pioneered over-the-counter sales, now commonplace in Japan, and were even open on Sundays.
Cruising through the 1980s with the Bubble Economy in full expansion mode, Toyota was able to capture nearly 50 percent of Japan’s new car market. These segmented dealerships helped that dominance by focusing their marketing and offering unique services to different customer bases.
During this time, the branding was further distinguished, as the old katakana “トヨタ” logos gave way to more modern designs. Toyota Stores were red, but not in the typical Toyota red you’re thinking of. It was more of a wine red, and the “TOYOTA” font looked nothing like the Helvetica logo that ToMoCo used on its cars.
Meanwhile, Toyopet Stores adopted a green motif, Corolla Stores adopted orange, and Vista Stores and Toyota Auto stores both adopted red and blue (though in 2000 Vista stores would change their logo to orange and blue). There was very little consistency in Toyota branding at all, and that’s one of the factors that led to the development of the Toyota oval logo in 1989.
Despite decades of new vehicle launches and light-swapped models, you could trace the evolutionary roots of each dealership chain by looking at the oldest nameplates. Toyota Stores, for example, still maintained exclusivity on the Crown, Century, and Land Cruiser. Toyopet Stores were the only ones selling the Corona. Toyota Auto Stores cornered the market on the Sprinter. Corolla Stores and Vista Stores had a monopoly on the Corolla and Vista, obvs.
Nevertheless, as time went on the distinct characteristics of each sales channel got muddied. Toyota Auto, Vista, and Toyopet Stores all received the Chaser, Cresta, and Mark II, respectively, as three incredibly similar versions of the same sedan.
After the bubble of Japan’s economy burst at the beginning of the 1990s, car sales slowly began to fall. Perhaps sensing some redundancy, Toyota began yet another rebranding effort.
On August 23, 1998 Toyota Auto Stores were renamed Toyota Netz Stores. According to Toyota, the name stood for — and this is 100 percent true — “Network of Energetic Teams for Zenith.” They were probably also seeking a name that, like Gazoo, sounded hip at the dawn of the internet age, even if it sounds horribly outdated today.
The first model introduced under the Netz banner was the Altezza, launched in October 1998 and instantly giving the brand some performance cred. It was quickly followed in January 1999 by the first-gen Vitz, a car known for kicking off a compact car renaissance in Japan. As such, in 2000 Toyota launched the Netz Cup, a one-make racing series using Vitzes for beginners and Altezzas for advanced drivers.
Then, in May 2004, with the Lexus brand about to be launched in Japan, Toyota finally began to reduce its sales channels by merging Vista Stores into Toyota Netz Stores. The new chain was called simply Netz, dropping the “Toyota” from the name.
At this point, we were back down to four sales channels, ostensibly distinguished in the following manner. Toyota Stores sold premium and luxury cars, Toyopet Stores offered offer medium-priced cars, “Corolla” dealers provide mass-market models, and Netz Stores sold “unique” cars that appealed to younger drivers.
However during this time, in the roaring 2000s, Nissan, Honda, Mazda, and Mitsubishi all consolidated their various sales channels. Toyota was the last holdout. So why now? The short answer is, vehicle ownership is declining. Before the bubble burst, in 1990, Japan bought a record number of 7.78 million cars. Last year, it sold 5.23 million, a one-third reduction.
With fewer people buying cars, five sales channels is unsustainable. That’s why last month, Toyota began to unify all the networks except for Lexus under new branding. Not surprisingly, the proposed dealership design resembles how Toyota dealerships have looked like for decades in the rest of the world.
Toyota has about 5,000 dealers in Japan — compared to just 1,500 for the entire US — so it’s almost certain that some under-performing stores will close altogether. Each store will carry the entire lineup of about 60 models, but Toyota says it’s looking to reduce redundancy there as well.
A 60-year tradition is about to disappear, and the future will likely mean fewer light-swap or rebodied models. That’s a little sad, but Toyota’s decision makes sense. And, as outsiders looking in at a system that often left us scratching our heads, we say good riddance. Buying a Toyota in Japan will be much less confusing from now on.