The stifling hot weather that has baked much of the nation _ from the Plains to the East Coast _ for about a week has meant big business for appliance stores.

Many appliance retailers report a surge of air conditioner sales as consumers seek relief from what is one of the worst heat waves in recent memory.

``People are buying whatever they can get their hands on,'' Bob McHenry, a spokesman for Sears, Roebuck & Co., said Monday. ``The stores have just been jammed.''

With temperatures reaching oppressive highs, customers have come out in droves to buy air conditioners. Some even got a headstart as the heatwave swept its way eastward from the Plains.

``Let me tell you, am I glad I got it in time before the heat wave hit here over the weekend,'' said Mary Escobar, a 62-year-old grandmother from Brooklyn, N.Y., who bought her unit at Sears 10 days ago.

McHenry said sales began swelling with the temperature, which hit the 100-plus degree mark in Minneapolis and Chicago early last week. The East Coast began to sizzle over the weekend.

``It'll probably be an all-time record for sales,'' McHenry said. He declined to release the number of units Sears has sold nationwide.

Sales were also brisk in Omah, Neb. at the Nebraska Furniture Mart, one of the Midwest's largest appliance stores.

The store has sold about 700 to 800 units, about double what it does for the entire season, said sales manager James Smith. He said he can't recall a time when he sold so many units.

``I've been in this business for 10 years, and I've never seen anything like this,'' he said. ``Nothing comes close.''

The biggest sellers have been the smaller units, many in the $400 range, Smith said, and most customers are elderly or owners of homes with no central air conditioning.

In the past couple of days, however, he said sales have declined as temperatures have dipped several degrees.

Some stores are apparently trying to use the hot weather to take advantage of consumers, according to Lance Haver, educational director of the Philadelphia-based Consumers Education and Protective Association.

The watchdog group has received complaints of price gouging and about stores luring customers by advertising cheap prices for brand-name products and trying to get them to buy more expensive items instead, he said.

``It's too soon to tell how many we'll get,'' Haver said. ``But I expect we'll be getting more as the season wears on.''

In Chicago, Consumer Services spokeswoman Connie Buscemi said the agency has received no complaints yet. ``But we've also been alerting the public to do business with established companies.''

Consumer advocates are also expecting some complaints about stores selling defective air conditioners.

So far, the unit has been running smoothly for Escobar, who said she has a heart condition and refuses to go outside in extremely hot weather.

`In fact, I just read about how many people have died in the heat wave, and I said to myself, `I'm not going to let myself become one of those statistics.'''

Nationwide, the death toll from the heat wave already has surpassed 350, with hot, dry conditions expected to return to the Plains on Friday.