Who’s getting a car for Christmas? Ask the people who sell giant bows

Americans do give cars as holiday gifts, and a decorative touch popularized by Lexus commercials may now be an economic indicator of sorts

If you are secretly hoping to be led outside on Christmas morning and surprised with a new car in the driveway, this may not be your year.

Some makers and sellers of car bows, the oversize decorations that sit on hoods and roofs, report a steep decline in business this holiday season. As with many economic indicators of late, the data is mixed. But if weak bow sales are taken as a shiny red indicator, they may foreshadow a drop-off in the number of cars given as gifts this year.

Orders are down 35% this holiday season at King Size Bows, which sells thousands of car bows each year to dealerships and individual consumers. That works out to hundreds fewer bows than normal, says Amber Hughes, the Costa Mesa, Calif., company’s owner.

Mercedes vehicles sit inside a showroom

Vehicles for sale at the Mercedes-Benz of Louisville dealership in Louisville, Kentucky, U.S., on Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2021. (Photographer: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images) (Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images / Getty Images)

Michael Rudolph, president of Car Bow Store in Warminster, Pa., also reports that sales have declined, though he won’t know by how much until the end of the year. And on the dealership side of the market, Tom Maoli, the owner of Lexus of Route 10 in Whippany, N.J., says he ordered fewer bows this year because new car sales are down and his inventory has been low.

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Real people—not just the ones who appear in commercials—do occasionally buy cars for loved ones as holiday gifts. Mr. Maoli figures that roughly 15% of holiday-season sales at his dealership are gifts, which is in line with estimates that Lexus says it has heard anecdotally from other dealers over the years. December was the strongest month for car sales from 2010 to 2020, according to an analysis from the research firm J.D. Power. During that period, 9.6% of sales occurred in December, and specifically among luxury brands, December accounted for 11.5% of sales. 

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A bow-cession would be consistent with overall trends in the auto industry this year, says Tyson Jominy, the vice president of data and analytics at J.D. Power. U.S. car sales are projected to reach 13.7 million by the end of the year, per J.D. Power, down from 14.9 million in 2021. Dealers’ inventories have been low because of supply-chain holdups, which means fewer cars on the lot to crown with a bow. 

Akio Toyoda, president of Toyota Motor Corp., speaks during a news conference at the company's showroom in Tokyo, Japan, on Tuesday, Dec. 14, 2021. (Kiyoshi Ota/Bloomberg via Getty Images / Getty Images)

On top of that, more drivers than usual are opting to purchase the car they have been leasing, Mr. Jominy says, because they are put off by the high prices of new cars. "It’d be hard to turn around and put a red bow on a vehicle you’ve already had for three years and try to pass it off as something new to someone," he says. 

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Not all bow sellers are having a rough year. At Golden Openings, a ceremonial supplies and events company in Urbandale, Iowa, car-bow sales are up 40% this holiday season, which amounts to roughly a hundred more bows, says owner Kimberly Baeth.

Ms. Baeth thinks that this year’s low auto inventories may have actually helped her business. "A lot of dealerships tell me they can’t even get the cars in," she says. "But when they do, they want to make it extra special." 

A couple and car salesperson going through paperwork while buying a car in a showroom.

"To me, when someone says they got a new car and it doesn’t have a bow, I’m like, ‘What’s missing? Where’s your big bow?’" Ms. Baeth says.

Car bows first gained widespread popularity about 20 years ago following a Lexus ad campaign, auto industry veterans say. 

In 1999, the car maker started promoting its "December to Remember" sale with commercials in which people gave bow-topped cars as holiday gifts to their loved ones. Three years later, there was a shortage of bows after car buyers tried to re-create scenes from the commercials at home.

The ads’ concept was born out of a business dilemma: Lexus wanted to find a way to put on a year-end sale without compromising its premium status, says Chris Graves, the chief creative officer at Team One, the agency that came up with, and still works on, the "December to Remember" campaign. 

Instead of "come on down, we’re chopping prices!" as Mr. Graves puts it, "could we do it in a way that was more tuned to a luxury brand?" The answer that Lexus and Team One hit upon was big bows and the joy of the gift-giving moment.

Mr. Rudolph, of Car Bow Store, says that Lexus’s commercials have come to serve as a reminder to dealerships that it’s time to order bows. "Every time the commercial airs, we see an uptick in bows purchased," he says.

Lexus, however, wasn’t the first company to stick a big bow on top of a car. Jim Sanfilippo, a retired auto marketing executive, notes that Hyundai produced an ad in the 1980s with the same car-as-gift premise. But the image didn’t catch on, perhaps in part because Hyundai’s floppy grayish bow was considerably less handsome than Lexus’s gracefully looping red ones.

Mr. Maoli, the Lexus dealer, says that people most often get cars as gifts for spouses, but that, unlike in the commercials, the present isn’t necessarily a true surprise. "I think they have had previous conversations," he says. 

Many buyers want to take the dealership’s bow home for the gift-giving moment, which Mr. Maoli allows. But, he says, "They have to give them back."

The bows that Lexus sells to its dealers cost about $450 apiece, and some high-end bows are even more expensive. At King Size Bows, a premium bow with a 4-foot diameter and 11 loops sells for $700 and another with an additional four loops sells for $800. (The company also has much cheaper options.)

Ms. Hughes of King Size Bows declines to give out precise details about the price, construction and dimensions of the "Twisted Loop Commercial Bow," the bow of hers that has appeared in some Lexus commercials. "We have a lot of people that try and knock off our bows," she explains. 

While car bow sales were down this year, Ms. Hughes says that one growing category is bows for houses, which are used to dress up a property on the market or to celebrate the closing of a deal. 

Ms. Hughes did hear from one bow buyer who surprised his wife with a house she thought they had bid unsuccessfully for. By comparison, a car seems like an easier gift to stick a bow on and surprise someone with.