It doesn't always look like it, but General Motors (NYSE: GM ) is making progress in its long haul back from bankruptcy.
GM said on Tuesday that its U.S. sales were up 6% in June, with all four of its brands posting retail sales gains. That beat analysts' estimates, which called for an average 2.1% gain, according to Bloomberg.
Six percent may not sound like a big gain, and it's likely to have trailed the U.S. market's overall growth for the month. (We'll know for sure in a day or so.) But the numbers behind the headline tell a story that suggests that GM is finally on the right track in its home market.
Strong retail sales should drive profit gains
GM pointed out that its retail sales actually grew 14% in June, likely outpacing the overall market. Executives noted that GM's fleet sales were down because of the timing of deliveries of certain large orders -- they happened to have hit earlier this year than in past years.
Generally, analysts tend to like it when an automaker's fleet sales are down relative to retail sales, as, generally speaking, retail sales are more profitable. But that's not the whole story: Rival Ford (NYSE: F ) gets as much as a third of its U.S. sales from "fleet" business -- more than GM -- but its overall profit margins in North America are among the best in the business. What sometimes goes unnoticed is that a lot of Ford's fleet sales are to commercial customers, who are buying high-profit trucks and vans.
Many pickups are bought by businesses like building contractors, who may buy 10 or 20 or more at a time. That's good business to have, better than the low-margin rental car sales that many associate with "fleet" numbers. GM likely has been losing some of that business to Ford, because Ford's F-Series pickups have been more competitive (and more fuel efficient) than GM's outgoing models.
But that could change as GM rolls out its all-new 2014 pickups. Some of those have already reached dealers, and GM U.S. sales chief Kurt McNeil said on Tuesday that they are "turning" very quickly – spending just 10 days on dealer lots, on average. Overall, sales of GM's Chevy Silverado (both old and new versions) were up a very impressive 29% in June.
GM is currently selling a mix of old (2013) and new (2014) pickups, a situation that is likely to continue for several months as GM ramps up production and begins a big marketing push for its all-new trucks. The new trucks will be much more profitable than the outgoing ones. But profits on the 2013s may be better than expected: It's customary to boost discounts on outgoing models, but because of strong industrywide demand, GM hasn't had to do that with its remaining 2013 trucks.
New products driving nice gains, and likely increased profits
There were other signs of progress for GM in June. Like Ford, GM's much-improved small cars saw strong sales as consumers continued to seek out high-quality, fuel-efficient options. The compact Chevy Cruze had its best sales month ever, GM said, and both the subcompact Chevy Sonic and the Chevy Volt hybrid posted strong results.
Sales of the full-sized Impala were roughly flat vs. last year's totals, but that hides a nice success story. Last year's sales were of the outgoing model, a dated car that sold largely to fleets. The new Impala is a much nicer (and much more profitable) product, and GM has emphasized retail sales with success: Retail sales of the Impala were up 62% over last June's totals.
GM is also seeing more and more success with its Cadillac and Buick brands, as more of its much-improved new products hit dealers and gather steam in the marketplace. That's a story we're likely to be hearing again and again over the next year and a half, as GM's long-awaited new-product offensive has now shifted into high gear -- and GM's bottom line should show the results over the next few quarters.
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