Trucks were a bright spot again during July. Image source: Ford Motor Company.

If Ford Motor Company (NYSE:F) investors were looking for July sales to be a pick-me-up after last week's worse-than-expected earnings, you might have to wait another month. Not to say that Ford's sales were bad during July, but Ford appears to be toward the lower end of the industry, which is heading toward a flat sales rate for the month -- numbers won't be official until sometime Wednesday because of a glitch at Jaguar.

Ford's total sales declined 2.8% last month compared with the prior year, but that was partially salvaged thanks to a 6% rise in fleet sales. On the flip side, retail demand weakened as Ford's retail sales dropped 6%. Beyond the totals, let's dig in to three takeaways from Ford's July results.

Housekeeping trends

Fleet sales have been a story to watch for Ford throughout 2016, as the first half of the year brought elevated levels of fleet sales. Management has consistently said that fleet sales would taper off throughout the back half of the year, and we're starting to see that.

In July, Ford's fleet sales generated 26% of total sales; that broke down to 12 percentage points from commercial fleet sales, 6 percentage points from government fleet sales, and 8 percentage points from the less desirable rental fleet sales. That's favorable compared with year-to-date percentages where fleet accounts for 34% of total sales.

So while Ford's fleet sales increased 6% last month, it was still an improvement from the first half of 2016, and investors should watch to see if fleet as a percentage of total sales continues to track between 25% and 30%.

Another trend to watch is Ford's inventory. Now that we're toward the end of the strong spring and summer selling season, investors will want to see gross stock decline. That's the trend we're seeing so far, as Ford's gross stock was 74 days' supply during July, which was four days less than the prior month. At some point there will be inventory buildup in advance of the Super Duty launch, but until then expect slight declines in inventory.

Bright spot

When looking at Ford's segments, the clear bright spots during July were its trucks and vans. Consider that Ford-brand car sales were down just under 10%, compared with the prior year, and even Ford-brand SUVs were down 5.3%. Lincoln's total sales declined 4.6%, leaving only Ford trucks with a gain for July at 4.8%.

"Trucks and vans continue to be market strengths for Ford," said Mark LaNeve, Ford's vice president of U.S. marketing, sales, and service, in a press release. "Van customers rewarded us with another strong year-over-year gain, and F-Series had its best retail sales this year."

More specifically, van sales posted their best July sales result since 1978 and topped 20,200 units sold, which was driven in large part by the Transit's 41% gain. Thanks to the strength of Ford's trucks, vans, and SUVs, Ford's overall transaction prices moved $1,600 higher in July, compared with the prior year, which was more than double the industry average.

Watching deals

This is an interesting time for investors within the automotive industry. As sales in the U.S. market peak, automakers could begin leaning on heavier promotions, deals, and incentives to protect market share. Interestingly enough, 0% financing deals had been very popular, but those deals declined in July.

"If automakers expect to outperform last year's record-breaking sales, they're going to have to lean more heavily on creating and promoting attractive financing offers to lure new buyers into showrooms." said Jessica Caldwell, Edmunds' executive director of industry analysis, in an email. "Zero percent financing deals were much more common last year summer than they are now: 12.9% of new car loans in July of 2015 were 0%, while only 10.2% of loans were 0% this July."

It'll be worth watching to see where incentives trend after this summer, as TrueCar noted that industry average incentives of total transaction prices are estimated to have increased 30 basis points from last year's July to 9.9%. While it's difficult to imagine the auto industry would get back into an all-out cutthroat incentive war, as that's a no-win scenario, incentives will probably trend higher over the medium term. We'll have to wait and see how that affects North American margins during the second half of 2016. 

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.