NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- For several years, Eddie Lampert's hedge fund has been a seller of AutoNation's (AN) common shares, a practice he continued this month with the disclosure that he sold another 48,046 shares at an average price of $63.73, reducing his stake to about 20 million shares.
Could Lampert be missing an opportunity? AutoNation is in the midst of a multiyear $100 million investment to develop a "digital storefront" for buying and selling vehicles at its more than 290 new-car franchises in 15 states. In its first phase, the storefront will allow online shoppers to browse the inventory and register a desire to buy specific vehicles. The vision comes mainly from CEO Mike Jackson, whose opinions and views on dealership issues are widely watched in Washington and on Wall Street.
AutoNation's system later on will allow shoppers to complete a sale, sell the cars they wish to trade and secure financing. While many U.S. dealers remain wedded to the traditional meet-and-greet system of welcoming consumers in physical showrooms and employing salespeople to haggle with them over price, other dealers are looking to streamline and automate the process via the Internet.
Some analysts point out that massive distribution and marketing costs can be significantly reduced with online tools. Others argue that most consumers don't mind shopping every couple of years at dealerships. Still, there's little doubt that consumers increasingly rely on the Internet for prices and vehicle information -- which brings them to the attention of dealers.
AutoNation wants to reduce the number of leads it buys from third-party sources such as Edmunds.com and Cox Automotive, which last week agreed to buy DealerTrack Technologies (TRAK) for $4 billion. TrueCar (TRUE) has created a vehicle-buying site on the Internet that cooperates with about a third of U.S. dealers to find customers and facilitate transactions. TrueCar also is being sued by some dealers and a trade organization, which are opposed to its methods.
Lest one conclude that Lampert, a prominent U.S. investor, is communicating pessimism with his sales of AutoNation shares, it's worth pointing out that he continues to be regarded by the automotive retailing chain as a "valued investor" who once owned more than half the company, according to a spokesman.
His share sales may be more easily explained: Lampert's ESL Investments, which has been struggling with its stake in Sears (SHLD) , had been drawing on its AutoNation stake to generate liquidity for those investors who wish to exit the fund, according to a report by Bloomberg.
Other investors are only too pleased to snap up the shares sold by Lampert's fund. The auto-dealership chain's stock price has almost tripled during the past five years while the Standard & Poor's 500 Index rose 89%. Shares of other retail automotive chains have done even better during the same period: Penske Automotive Group (PAG) is up 314%, and Group One Automotive (GPI) is up 237%.
Among those investors remaining solidly in AutoNation's corner is Microsoft (MSFT) co-founder Bill Gates. His Cascade fund and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation own more than 18 million AutoNation shares. Together, Lampert and Gates own about a third of the company.
How soon it will be possible to browse an AutoNation Web site, buy a car and have it delivered in a transparent, easily negotiated process is anyone's guess. Penske Automotive and others are testing systems, as well. The chains, encouraged by automakers, are pushing hard toward the goal of transforming one of the last retailing sectors to resist being upended by the Internet.