The End of Presidents Day Car Shopping Specials?

retail sales see biggest gain in almost two years with 3 gain in january
The End of Presidents Day Car Shopping SpecialsMario Tama - Getty Images
  • Presidents Day car specials may seem like a recent idea, but they actually date back more than a century.

  • The holiday weekend deals used to be bigger, but the pandemic and production shortages have meant few to no incentives.

  • Although the marketplace is in a period of flux, you can expect Presidents Day weekend deals to be few and far between on a national scale.

Long ago, on gloomy February days with the roads a mess, car salespeople in Massachusetts would chain-smoke and complain how few customers came into their showrooms during the coldest, shortest month of the year. But they knew the year's first holiday weekend would drum up business when there wasn't any. Their plan: plaster the airwaves and newspapers with car specials exclusively on Presidents Day weekend. For all the revolutionary history steeped into the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, pasting George Washington's face next to an Oldsmobile and handing out Boston Creams and balloons was a signature moment.

"February was a good time to buy a car and a mattress," said John Paul, AAA Northeast's "Car Doctor." "The salespeople were staring at each other playing cards. They said, 'Let's make an event.' "

History, at least how The Boston Globe wrote it in a 1958 obituary on Alvan T. Fuller, attributed the idea of Presidents Day car specials to the Massachusetts governor and Packard dealer. As far back as the early 1900s, Fuller's tactics of balloons, live bands, and personal invitations turned his dealerships into parties and parties into sales. Decades on, dealers ran an "advertising blitz" across newspapers, radio and television in the frenzy of Black Friday, according to Todd Merriam, a partner at accounting firm Withum. And since you're reading this on a phone or a 4K monitor, you well know that newspapers, radio, and television aren't where you look for car listings in 2023.

"It used to be the start of the spring sales season," said Merriam, who works closely with dozens of auto dealerships across New England. "The days of old where manufacturers had to offer deep incentives this time of year, now they don't have to."

No Steals Are Likely This Year . . .

Unfortunately, it's unlikely you'll find steals to be had this Presidents Day weekend in a new car market that just ended its worst sales year since 2012. According to Automotive News, car sales didn't even crack 13.9 million. Dried-up inventories, shipping delays, and parts shortages have dragged the auto industry since the pandemic began. Consumers got caught in the low supply curve and succumbed to paying sticker or accepting four- and five-figure markups on popular models. Dealers, to no one's surprise, are churning record per-car profits on new and used vehicles. There'll be no end in sight—and no significant deals—until global car production resumes to pre-pandemic levels.

. . . But a Small Incentive Is Still Possible

Unlike past years, automakers aren't backing their dealers with the attractive financing and leasing deals that made the weekend famous. For example, Ford dealers in New England are advertising Presidents Day as an enticement to come in, but without the big discounts, Merriam said. Chrysler is running a national campaign, but there's nothing of note from Honda, Hyundai, and other major brands. Nissan has been very aggressive with cheap 18-month leases on a couple models, but cash on the hood is a rare find. According to data from Automotive News, Ford is offering up to $3000 off last year's Edge. Audi is happy to take off $1500 on a new Q5, and even Toyota is feeling frisky with its ever-popular Tacoma, which has up to $1000 in rebates.

But with the bulk of the lowest factory interest rates between 3 and 7 percent, it's not exactly cheap to buy. Leasing can be even less of a deal as automakers have restricted customers from trading their leases to non-franchised dealers so they can't benefit from the equity of the used car market. As such, Certified Pre-Owned cars are more expensive and much older than they were a few years ago.

Still, the best universal advice is to shop for models that sit on lots for a while or at least won't disappear the moment they back off the delivery truck. Keep your eye on 2022 models or unusual specs that many buyers wouldn't want, look for interest-rate offers on your favored brand, and be prepared on Presidents Day and every day this year to compromise. Plus, you never know with the economy; next year could be a whole different story.

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