One thing we love in this area of the country is our traditions.
If someone were to ask you to name three things unique to Boston, you could do a lot worse than answer: the swan boats, the Boston Marathon, and Presidents’ Day Auto Sales.
All go back more than a century and are unique to the area.
For decades, George Washington’s Birthday (Feb. 22) was synonymous with automobile dealers’ open houses.
The tradition generally is credited to Peter Fuller, who ran a highly successful Cadillac-Oldsmobile dealership at the junction of Commonwealth Avenue and the Boston University Bridge. Today’s BU students would find it hard to believe, but the stretch of Commonwealth Avenue from the BU Bridge to Brighton Avenue used to be Boston’s Automobile Row.
However, the Presidents’ Day history goes back farther to Fuller’s father, Alvan Fuller, who used the day to first advertise his bicycle business and later his automobiles.
Alvan Fuller would go on to be governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (1925-1929).
Since 1971, we’ve celebrated Presidents’ Day on the third Monday of the month, making it a three-day weekend and sales festival. Other retailers (electronics, furniture) have glommed onto the weekend, but autos have reigned supreme.
The weekend has become such a selling attraction that the National Football League has taken notice and considers it prime expansion territory.
All the talk you hear of extending the NFL season by several weeks is aimed at one thing; namely, making the three-day holiday into the home of the Super Bowl.
That, too, would have an automotive theme because the Super Bowl is a major home for national automobile advertising.
Manufacturers already are well aware of New England’s Presidents’ Day auto sales.
“They know that it’s a special weekend in Boston, particularly, but also throughout New England,” says David Rosenberg, CEO of Prime Auto Group, which will have 21 dealerships spread across New England when its Mercedes-Benz facility opens in Hanover later this year.
Prime’s footprint extends from Greater Boston to Cape Cod (Hyannis, Orleans) to the south, Lancaster to the west, and Saco, ME, to the north.
Local dealerships will have enhanced February incentives—ones other regions of the country won’t get—because February has become such a selling occasion.
“This year, Presidents’ Day promises to be a good time for the consumer. Locally, we’re coming off a dismal January with the cold and snowy weather, and February has stared out the same way,” says Rosenberg.
That leads to what he calls “frozen capital.”
“A lot of times dealers can’t pick and choose their inventory because of factory runs,” he says. “At the same time, we don’t want too many extra cars around because we’re paying finance charges on them. So the Presidents’ Day Weekend becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: Dealers want to clear inventory, manufacturers are offering incentives, and interest rates are still low. It truly is a good time to go shopping.”
Much of the carnival atmosphere of past Presidents’ Day sales is gone.
“I remember the years when we’d buy racks of cherry pies, paint the dealership’s windows, and have people dressed up as George Washington and Abe Lincoln,” says Rosenberg. “Things aren’t as hokey these days. It’s not as much about the hype as taking care of people. It’s hard both to be in costume and be professional and taken seriously.”
That’s not all that’s changed.
Consumers are more prepared, they visit fewer dealers, and some of the happiest car owners are those who have developed relationships inside the dealership.
“I don’t think anyone wants to play The Game anymore,” says Rosenberg. “You know, with the salesman taking a sheet with the figures on it to his sales manager. They probably talk about the previous night’s Bruins game for a few minutes, then the salesman comes back with the first price crossed out with a Sharpie and a lower figure in its place.”
Rosenberg knows the average customer has spent somewhere between 7 and 11 hours online. He’s happy when someone comes in with figures they’ve obtained from places such as Cars.com, Edmunds, Kelley Blue Book, and Autotrader.
He recommends that consumers find average sales and trade-in prices for both the car they’re interested in buying and for their trade-in and keep the two transactions separate, and also to remember to ask about any available rebates.
It fits in with his dealerships’ policy of transparency—showing you all the figures on the deal: price of the new car, price of the trade-in, taxes, registration, and document fees.
Internet searches and online inquiries are changing dynamics in the sales business.
“With all the online services, we can get multiple leads for the same customer,” says Rosenberg. “The new industry standard says you’re doing a good job if you turn 10 percent of those internet leads into sales.”
Even with all the research, impulse buying remains.
“Someone might come in prepared to buy a Honda Accord, for example,” says Rosenberg, “but then they see the Pilot in the showroom and decide they want the extra room and safety.”
With manufacturers refreshing and redesigning models on a shorter cycle these days, Rosenberg says a “long in the tooth” outgoing model is a good place to look for deals.
“People know that model is coming up for redesign and there’s not a lot of demand for it so manufacturers often give dealers an incentive to keep it in inventory. That can be a good value proposition for the customer.”
At the end of the process, something never changes.
“There’s always something special about having a new car with the latest technology,” says Rosenberg.
Everyone seems to get hooked on some gadgetry. For some, it’s navigation.
For Rosenberg, it’s the new air conditioned seats. “I love them, especially on a hot summer day in a car with a dark interior,” he says.
But what the area dealers really want is to be selling cars.
That sure beats shoveling snow.Bill Griffith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MrAutoWriter.