Ford Motor Company (NYSE:F) said its U.S. sales fell 2.1% in August. That was a smaller decline than analysts had expected. A big surge in sales of Ford's F-Series pickups helped to offset declines in other market segments, as well as sales lost because of Hurricane Harvey.
In another bit of storm-related good news, Ford also said that its dealers in the Houston area appear to have lost far fewer vehicles to flood damage than it had initially expected.
Ford's shares rose over 3% in early trading on Friday after the news was released.
Ford sales: The raw numbers
|Metric||August 2017||Change vs. August 2016|
|Total U.S. sales||209,897||(2.1%)|
What worked last month: Pickups and pricing generally
Ford sold 77,007 F-Series pickups in the U.S in August, a big total that represents a 15% gain from a year ago. Better yet, that gain was accomplished without aggressive discounting: Ford said F-Series average transaction prices rose about $3,400 from a year ago, to about $45,600 per truck in August, on heavy demand for high-series trim versions of its new-for-2017 Super Duty trucks.
Ford said the top three trim levels (Lariat, King Ranch, and Platinum) accounted for 53% of retail Super Duty sales last month. Strong sales of the high-performance (and high-profit-margin) F-150 Raptor also helped pricing, as did the first sales of refreshed-for-2018 F-150s.
The F-Series' sales gains outpaced those of its key full-sized pickup rivals. Sales of General Motors' (NYSE:GM) Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra rose a combined 2.7% to 71,702 sold in August, while sales of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles' (NYSE:FCAU) Ram pickup line fell 7% to 37,608 last month.
Those pricing gains on trucks helped Ford to a good overall pricing gain. Ford's U.S. sales chief, Mark LaNeve, said that according to J.D. Power data, Ford's overall average transaction prices rose about $1,300 from a year ago in August, far outpacing the industry's average $140 gain. Ford's per-vehicle spending on incentives fell about $240 from a year ago, he said, versus a $210 increase for the industry.
What didn't work as well: Almost everything else
It's a good thing Ford's pickups had a strong month in August, as most of its other products had a tougher time.
It's a little hard to believe given that SUV demand in the U.S. remains strong, but overall sales of Ford-brand SUVs were down 11.6% last month. Ford said some of that decline was due to the timing of deliveries to fleet customers, and that the Explorer and Expedition were both up year over year at retail.
But the nearly 16% decline in sales of the compact Escape has to be worrisome for Ford executives, particularly given that the Escape had a decent month in July. But the story may be more about a key rival than about the Escape itself: Sales of General Motors' (NYSE:GM) Chevrolet Equinox rose almost 85% in August. The Equinox is an all-new clean-sheet design for 2018, and GM is marketing it aggressively, while the Escape is nearing the end of its model cycle.
Sales of Ford-brand cars were also off in August, down 9% from a year ago. Given that buyers (across the industry) have been migrating away from traditional sedan models in favor of crossover SUVs, that decline isn't all that worrisome (in fact, Ford gained a bit of market share in sedans in August, LaNeve said). But Ford's apparent inability to capture more of those buyers with its own crossover SUV models is a concern.
Sales at Ford's Lincoln luxury brand fell 5.8% in August. Lincoln has been outperforming the overall U.S. luxury-vehicle market, which has been softening in recent months. In fact, despite the decline, the brand gained about 0.5 percentage points of market share in August, LaNeve said.
The upshot: Ford's pricing is the big story for investors
Ever since Alan Mulally was Ford's CEO, the company has said that it will prioritize pricing (and thus profit margins) over total sales numbers in weak markets. Put another way, it will resist the temptation to discount aggressively to generate sales gains. At this point, as the U.S. new-car market shows signs of weakening, the story is that Ford is still walking that talk.
That's good news for shareholders despite the sales declines. Ford is likely losing a fair number of sales to rivals that are more willing to discount heavily. But the net effect should be strong profitability for Ford in what it still its most important market.
Ford's pre-tax profit in its North America region fell 19% on higher costs in the second quarter. Will the third quarter be better? We'll find out when Ford reports its results in October.