Do Extended Black Friday Hours Actually Increase Sales?

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Busy shopping mall during Christmas season

Black Friday is a huge day for retail sales, so naturally, stores want to milk the sensation for all its worth. Every year, retailers try to make the day bigger than the last. This year, the decision makers at many national stores are taking a literal approach by actually making Black Friday longer than a day, with extended sale hours that actually start on Thursday. The idea is: If something works, then more of it will work better.

But, um, does this actually make sense? Do more store hours really translate into more sales?

Plenty of retail analysts say no. Instead of increasing sales, extended hours tend to just redistribute sales over a longer time period. Some consumers may be happier with the extended hours—preferring to shop at midnight on Thanksgiving night rather than 4 a.m. on Friday morning—but they’re unlikely to spend more overall.

It’s highly unlikely, for that matter, that a shopper will hit the stores late on Thanksgiving evening, and then be back at those same stores early on the morning of Black Friday. That wouldn’t make a whole lot of sense; then again, much about the Black Friday experience doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

(MORE: 6 Black Friday Secrets Those Deal Sites Won’t Tell You About)

Colin McGranahan, an analyst for the New York research firm Sanford C. Bernstein & Co., calls the kickoff to the winter shopping period “silly season,” and told the Chicago Tribune flatly that more hours don’t mean more demand among consumers:

“Somebody thought they could generate an advantage by opening earlier, and then everyone followed, so there is no advantage. They’re not going to create any more demand by opening earlier.”

Dave Brennan, a marketing professor and co-director of the University of St. Thomas’s Institute of Retailing Excellence, tells the Minneapolis Star-Tribune

“Some people think if you have more hours, you will have more sales … In reality, you’re just redistributing the sales over a broader amount of hours.”

(MORE: Black Thursday: Will Shoppers Really Show Up at Stores on Thanksgiving Night?)

In the same way, the idea of “Christmas creep”—extending of the holiday shopping season, which this year pretty much started in September—also doesn’t necessarily translate into more sales.

One analyst for the tax consulting firm BDO, which recently surveyed 100 retail chief marketing officers, offered these insights to MarketWatch:

“You’ve seen a lot more (holiday) discounting before Halloween or even before back-to-school (shopping) was over,” said Ted Vaughan, a BDO partner. “Retailers are still going to push and promote the kick off of the holiday season. But the shopping pattern is changing. Promotions have become so prevalent it’s watering down the one-day sale.”

(MORE: Increasingly, Black Friday Is a Day to Stay Home, Not Hit the Mall)

The watering down of holiday deals, and Black Friday in particular, could actually hurt sales in the long run, or at least not increase them. At some point—and I think we’re reaching this point—”deal” and “Black Friday” just don’t turn shoppers’ heads like they used to, and retailers are to blame because they’re overusing these words and phrases.

Even with the onslaught of deals and discounts, with an extended Black Friday and a longer overall holiday shopping season, retail sales are expected to see minimal growth. According to the BDO survey, Black Friday purchases are expected to rise a mere 1.6% in 2011, compared to a 3.8% rise predicted last year.

With the exception of the rich, who are expected to go on big shopping sprees this holiday season, the average middle-class consumer plans on spending less this year: $704.18, compared to $718.98 in 2010, and over $750 during pre-recession times. No amount of Black Friday (or pre- or post-Black Friday) deals is likely to change how much shoppers can afford to spend this year. Longer hours on Black Friday won’t have much effect either.

So why are stores pumping up and drawing out Black Friday like never before? Why are they ruining Thanksgiving for many workers by making them come in on a national holiday? Often, interestingly enough, retailers are motivated by the same forces that cause many consumers to buy stuff they don’t really need: We all feel the need to keep up with the Joneses, and no one likes to be left behind.

Tom Aiello, a spokesman for Sears, told the Chicago Tribune, “There seems to be a pack mentality right now with retailers following each other.” Sears, Aiello says, is setting itself apart by not opening on Thanksgiving night:

“We’ll follow the customer and what they’ve asked for and continue to honor the Black Friday tradition by opening up our doors at 4 a.m.”

(MORE: Think Black Friday Has the Cheapest Prices? Think Again)

Let’s not pretend, however, that Sears has decided to not open until Friday morning because it is being all traditional and has too much respect for Thanksgiving. Last year, Sears was open on Thanksgiving itself, and this year, its sister retailer, Kmart, is open on Thanksgiving Day from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.