"It's a hamster wheel. That's all it is," Kalafer said. "Dealers are getting on the hamster wheel and just turning and churning and turning and turning."
And with concern growing that stair-step objectives will be tougher to hit in a shrinking new-vehicle market in 2019, more dealers say they are giving up on chasing the automaker bogeys. Kalafer is working to start an organization to help dealers try to fight back.
While stair-step targets were often attainable and even liked by some dealers as industry sales were growing, it's a different story today for many who say they scramble each month to decide whether to pursue the targets.
The quandary creates weekly and monthly uncertainty around vehicle pricing and store profitability. To cope, more dealers are focused on wringing bigger profits from other parts of the dealership, such as used-vehicle sales.
Rick Ricart, president of Ricart Automotive Group in Columbus, Ohio, said even as objectives get tougher, his dealerships usually try to hit targets as it is a "feast or famine" situation.
But one brand recently told the retailer to "beat our best January ever, which was 1992, by one unit to hit our objective," Ricart said. "How does that make any sense?"
Pennsylvania dealer Corina Diehl calls stair-step targets "horrendous" and says they are getting higher and harder to reach.
"We're whoring out the product," Diehl said, "and nobody's winning."
She's stopped trying to chase every objective. Diehl, who operates an eight-store group selling 10 brands, says the only brands she represents that don't use stair steps are Toyota and Volkswagen. When she sees a target she deems unrealistic, Diehl tells her managers to focus on taking good care of customers and watching gross profits instead. She expects to increasingly say "no" as 2019 goes on.
Independent auto industry analyst Glenn Mercer told Automotive News last month that while each program is different, the effect from most stair-step initiatives is pulling sales forward.
"If we do go into a downturn or a slump, the pressure is going to mount on these programs. They'll just crack under the strain," Mercer said. "You'll just have more and more dealers saying, 'Yeah, I'm not going to hit it this month. I'm sorry. I cannot do it. I cannot do it.' And OEMs will have to ratchet back."
The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which represents a dozen automakers including Ford Motor Co., BMW and Audi parent Volkswagen, called stair steps useful tools.
"Stair-step programs are beneficial for a number of reasons, including the fact that they incentivize sales and reward performance," spokesman Bryan Goodman said in a statement. "We are very supportive of manufacturers being allowed to offer these programs."