Baby, it's cold outside -- but it's warm and toasty in the eyes of fashion retailers who have pastel miniskirts, tank tops and strappy sandals in their windows and on the sales floor as early as mid-January.

Shopping for warm weather items may seem inconceivable to consumers when snow is still in the forecast, but retailers say it's smart business to switch seasons ahead of Mother Nature.

"Our spring line is selling well right now," said Erica Archambault, spokeswoman for Gap (search), which has had spring items on the floor since mid-January. "People are excited to see new things."

Marnie Goldman, 31, of Baltimore, a self-confessed shopaholic, finds the timing of spring arrivals frustrating and nonsensical.

"Right now, why is everything gorgeous pastel colors we can't wear until at least late April? I don't understand who buys it. Who is saying 'Oh I need a pink miniskirt' now?"

David Moin, senior editor of retail for Women's Wear Daily (search), said different stores justify early placement for different reasons.

"Some stores say that there's a fashion customer who wants to shop early and they get a good rush of business when they bring clothes in early," he said.

Higher priced stores like Saks (search) and Bloomingdale's (search) sell similar lines, so there's a legitimate race to put them out first, said Moin. "There are a lot of politics involved," he said. "They contend that they will get a rush of business and will sell better if they get it in earlier."

"The other rationale is just general competition they get publicity first, they can hype it sooner, and maybe they feel they'll get the customer in ahead of competition."

And although it will most likely be bitter cold in Baltimore for a while, consumers elsewhere are already experiencing t-shirt weather and desire fresh duds. "In warmer climates, there's an absolute need for this type of clothing at this time of year," Gap's Archambault said.

Daniel Butler, vice president of retail operations for the National Retail Federation (search), said the strategy is also aimed at customers who are planning to go on vacation in warmer areas.

"A fair amount of people travel to warmer locations and want to pick up a few new items to wear, especially swimwear," he said.

Stores are coming out of the fall season, inventories are depleting, and they want to look "fresh and new" and show off the new merchandise to customers.

"They want them to at least come by and look at it," said Butler. "You don't want your store to go all of January and February looking like a big clearance sale."

Women's Wear Daily's Moin said while spring lines have been placed in stores at seemingly illogical times for years, the difference now is that there is more space for them and better organization.

"Retailers have a history of having excess merchandise and have to dump at the end of the season," he said. "Now everyone doing better at managing winter inventories so there's less clearance of winter lines -- which means more room for spring lines."

Although it's important for stores to show change, the premature blossoming can backfire.

"Some consumers do think it's ridiculous," Moin said. "They are still buying coats and galoshes now and get annoyed with the store and go somewhere and get what they want."

Goldman has experienced this type of frustration first hand. "I've been looking everywhere lately for winter things and everyone is sold out. Target (TGT) doesn't even have any more thermal underwear, and I called Wal-Mart (WMT) and they are out of it too. They all just have their spring lines now."

Gap Inc. (GPS), which also owns labels like Old Navy and Banana Republic, has found early spring placement financially successful. On Thursday the company reported net sales of $939 million for the four-week period ended Jan. 31, 2004 -- an 11 percent increase compared with the same period in 2003.

“Post-holiday sales strategies in each of our brands effectively cleared merchandise in preparation for spring," Sabrina Simmons, senior vice president of treasury and investor relations for Gap, said in a statement that also cited "strong customer response to spring product.”

Staying one step ahead of the customer is the name of the game for retailers, Butler said.

"You want to get the merchandise out and have your visual presentation set so when the customer is ready to buy you are waiting," he said. Stores will have lead time before every season, he said. "You always want to be ahead of your customer."

Spring merchandise doesn't sell at its peak level in January, but the important thing is that it does sell, said Butler. "There are a lot of people who shop early or ahead of the season, especially if they have an unusual size or specific taste."

And the bottom line still reigns: "If it didn't sell in January they wouldn't sell it till March."