Winter temperatures have finally arrived in the U.S. Northeast, bringing relief to seasonal businesses after record warmth crimped sales of cold-weather clothing, snow shovels and heating fuels through December.

Before the cold arrived this week, New Yorkers strolled through Central Park in shorts and T-shirts one warm Saturday in January.

Retailers faced racks of unsold winter clothing and distributors of heating oil — among the businesses hardest hit by the warm weather — were forced to lay off employees during their normal peak period.

The unusual warmth was not confined to the Northeast. In Minneapolis, organizers were nearly forced to cancel the National Pond Hockey Championship set for this weekend.

Four states in the Northeast, which consumes 80 percent of all U.S. heating oil, along with normally frigid Minnesota set new average record high temperatures in December, according to the National Weather Service.

"This winter so far has been ridiculously warm," said Laurie Falter, a heating fuels economist with the U.S. government's Energy Information Administration.

The unusual warmth in the Northeast means U.S. heating oil demand in December 2006 probably hit a record low for that time of year, she added.

Trucks topping up tanks with heating oil, common sights during cold Northeast winters, remained in garages due to autumn stockpiling by customers who feared price spikes.

"Our members haven't had any need for any seasonal employees at all this year and we are now at the point where in the last couple of weeks some full-time employees are getting laid off," said Eric DeGesero, vice president of the Fuel Merchants Association of New Jersey.

The warm weather is also discouraging people from participating in winter sports like skiing, even though many resorts say they are pumping enough man-made snow to provide

good conditions.

"The challenge is convincing people to come up and take a look," said Dave Hirasawa, investor relations manager for American Ski Company, which owns resorts in Vermont and Maine.

Snow removal equipment manufacturers are also suffering.

"It's no surprise that snow-thrower sales all over the country are down," said John Wright, spokesman for the Toro Company, a big manufacturer of outdoor equipment.

Toro's profit should not be hurt by weakness in snow-thrower sales as they are a small part of the company's overall business, Wright said.

COLD TO STAY?

Many companies hope the colder weather will hold on for the rest of winter and salvage their seasonal business.

But meteorologists are split over how long the cold weather will last in the Northeast. Government forecasters say there is an equal chance that temperatures in the Northeast will be above or below normal from February through May. Private forecasters are mixed, with some calling for warmer weather through March and others expecting cold.

Retailers are hoping cold weather will trigger pent-up demand for winter clothing and help move unsold inventory, which many have begun to sell at a discount.

A big storm in the right part of the country could also turn the season for snow-thrower sales, said Toro's Wright.