<strong>(Black Friday) is not a meaningless concept, but I think it&#39;s always been overstated and will continue to be overstated in the future.</strong> – Bill Hempel, chief economist for the Credit Union National Association

SALT LAKE CITY — For 22-year-old account executive Stephanie Goldman and her two sisters, the preparations for Black Friday start weeks in advance. The three of them, whom Goldman calls "Black Friday fanatics," spend hours listing items they need, combing through circulars to scout out deals and jotting down store opening times.

By the time the day arrives, Goldman, a resident of Cliffside, N.J., has a well-honed plan, right down to when and where they'll take their Dunkin Donuts breaks. For a shopping spree that averages eight hours, and once lasted 14, breaks for food and drink are, after all, necessary.

Their mantra? "It's a marathon, not a sprint."

A time to save?

Though widely promoted, Black Friday bargains can be harder to find than Tickle Me Elmo. Andrea Woroch, a consumer and money-saving expert for Kinoli Inc., puts it this way: "The data shows you're better off hitting the snooze button. Ultimately, the products offered at the deepest discounts on Black Friday are very limited in quantity."

Woroch cites ShopAdvisor data showing that neither Black Friday nor Cyber Monday (the online version of Black Friday which occurs the Monday after Thanksgiving) were among the six best days for discounts in 2011.

Jon Lal concurs. Lal is the founder of befrugal.com, a website offering coupons, cash back on purchases and other resources to help consumers save.

"For the consumer," Lal says, "there are two things that are important to remember. Product prices vary through the year, and Black Friday is going to get you a good price but not necessarily the best price."

Lal offers three tips for saving money on holiday purchases. First, have a shopping list so you know what you want. Second, have a budget so you stay true to what you want. Third, go online to comparison shop and sign up for email sales alerts.

A time to spend

In spite of, or perhaps because of, the scarcity of savings on Black Friday, shoppers spent a record $11.4 billion on Black Friday last year, a 6.6 percent increase from 2010, according to ShopperTrak.

Bill Hempel, chief economist for the Credit Union National Association, says that Black Friday should be viewed as a retail marketing technique more than an opportunity for consumers to save.

"Doorbuster specials, I suspect, account for a really small proportion of spending that day," he says.

In other words, if you made it through the checkout line with a $50 TV last year, consider yourself lucky.

Hempel points out that the biggest day of the year for spending is actually the last Saturday before Christmas, not Black Friday.

"(Black Friday) is not a meaningless concept, but I think it's always been overstated and will continue to be overstated in the future," he said.

With regard to retailers' prospects for the coming season, Hempel is cautiously bullish. "Employment is still not back to pre-recession levels," he notes, "but the economy is growing (albeit slowly) and people have put off purchases for a long time creating pent-up demand." Based on these factors, "this season should be stronger than last season."

Calendar creep

The phrase "Black Friday" originated more than five decades ago among Philadelphia policemen. It was used as an epithet to describe the day after Thanksgiving when hordes of shoppers would descend on Center City causing terrible traffic problems and long hours for Philadelphia's finest. For some time, the Saturday after Thanksgiving also bore the same name.

Merchants, understandably, disliked the ominous-sounding phrase, preferring "Big Friday" and "Big Saturday," but the moniker stuck, and spread. Within a few decades other cities were using it and by the late 1980s it had become something of a national institution. By then, retailers had come to embrace the appellation as an apt description of the change on their income statements from red to black.

Having long blanketed the nation, Black Friday is now creeping across the calendar. Promotions in early November and even late October are no longer uncommon.

In its 2012 Holiday Retail Outlook report, Booz & Co. reported, "consumers are increasingly viewing Black Friday as 'irrelevant.'"

Cliff Courtney, chief strategy officer of Zimmerman Advertising, agrees. "Unofficially, Black Friday will stand as the kick-off to the holiday season," Courtney says, "but its impact will continue to diminish as the onslaught of sales will defuse its core proposition."

Web retailers aim to capitalize on any decline in the traditionally brick-and-mortar deal day. Some online promotions tout "Black November" sales, reminding consumers of the ease with which they can, on any day, hunt for bargains while avoiding cold weather, rowdy crowds and stock-outs of advertised items.

Tradition trumps transactions

Whether Black Friday waxes or wanes remains to be seen, but one thing is for certain. Come early Friday morning, Nov. 23, Stephanie Goldman and her two sisters will be braving the New Jersey cold for the eighth consecutive year of Black Friday.

Count on them to scour stores for deals, such as the $500 Ann Taylor work wardrobe Goldman's sister bought one year for $100.

But make no mistake, the main draw is the shared experience.

"It's sister bonding time," Goldman says. "Black Friday is a ritual for us, so we're unaffected by the pre-Thanksgiving deals or those online. It's a family tradition that's the start of the holiday season. You cannot help but be joyful with that kind of rush."