Sometime in December, 7-Eleven employees plan to remove the promotional signs for Colombian coffee from stores and replace them with banners that go something like this: Y2K Ready--4U!

Inside, customers will find shelves bulging with extra quantities of bottled water, canned tuna, candles, flashlights, and videos that explain how to prepare for power outages and other emergencies that may or may not erupt when the year 2000 begins.

Virtually alone among major retailers, 7-Eleven Inc. is preparing to cash in on consumers' fears about possible computer failures linked to the beginning of the new century.

"We started out several months ago thinking about the Y2K problem," said James W. Keyes, chief operating officer of 7-Eleven Inc. "We've gone from that to realizing this may be the single biggest opportunity we've ever had. It has gone from a Y2K problem to a Y2K opportunity."

The preparations don't stop with essential consumables, which will be going into the stores beginning in November. In case there is a run on champagne by fin de siecle partyers, the nation's biggest chain of convenience stores will have on hand its own private label of bubbly. And if consumers rush the gas pumps at its stores, the retailer says it will have gasoline tanker trucks, filled to the brim, on standby.

Whether 7-Eleven is remembered as the retailer that boldly cashed in on Y2K fears and revelry--or got stuck with millions of unsold rolls of toilet paper and $6.99 bottles of champagne--has yet to be determined.

Such is the problem of predicting human behavior in December, when the year 2000 phenomenon meets the hectic holiday shopping period, creating the potential for a crush of last-minute buying and possibly the biggest headache ever for the nation's retailers.

"I think it's going to be ugly," said Cathy Hotka, vice president for information technology at the National Retail Federation. "The message we've had for consumers: Please buy some stuff, but buy it now."

Business and government leaders have warned that consumers jamming gasoline pumps and checkout lines and hoarding food and medicines could create more problems than any technological failures from year 2000 computer breakdowns. This is one reason the nation's biggest retail chains are treading carefully, quietly boosting inventories of such items as batteries while telling customers to keep cool.

"Retailers and manufacturers do not want to be perceived as fanning the flames of customer panic," Hotka said. "So far there has been no panic. But retailers know if they tamper with customers' buying models, they could end up with a wacky buying season."

In fact, Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Home Depot Inc. and other large retailers do not want consumers to snap up generators, tents or anything else that might be returned after Jan. 1, Hotka said.

But 7-Eleven executives say they have little to lose. If widespread power failures occur, the retailer trumps its competitors. If customers overreact but nothing happens--as the electrical power industry now predicts--7-Eleven says it isn't overly worried because customarily, few people return convenience-store items.

But the chain is running the risk that first-quarter sales next year will slump if nothing happens and its stores are overstocked with the emergency items, retail analysts say. 7-Eleven officials reply that they are confident consumer demand will be strong enough to absorb any excess inventories after Jan. 1 before it suffers losses.

And the upside is worth it, the company maintains.

"If we're really clever, we have a shot at 50 million people coming through our doors" between midnight of New Year's Eve and midnight New Year's Day, said a grinning Keyes. "It has the potential to be our biggest selling day."

Most big retailers aren't going there. They are happy to sell year 2000 memorabilia and party supplies, but they remain tight-lipped about how they'll prepare for possible customer hoarding. None is actively marketing the year 2000 event the way 7-Eleven executives plan to do it, Hotka said.

"They've got the field to themselves," she said.

The retailer's plans are raising a few eyebrows. Robert F. Dyer, a marketing professor at George Washington University, called the retailer's year 2000 approach "questionable" and wondered whether its Y2K banners might be too provoking.

"The implication is, get ready for a problem," Dyer said.

But the National Retail Federation's Hotka said the retailer seemed to have a "smart" campaign that didn't cross the line. In fact, some analysts believe 7-Eleven may be setting a good example for an industry that has generally kept quiet about its Y2K preparations.

"If the mainstream does not participate in the debate, people who want information are forced to go to the fringes," said David Kessler, executive administrator for the Center for Millennial Studies at Boston University. "If these organizations are smart, what they'll do is put out a statement in plain English about their stance."

By detailing its plans, 7-Eleven hopes to draw more people into its 18,500 company-owned and franchised convenience stores beginning this November. Christmas Day is currently the retailer's busiest of the year, but it believes sales this New Year's Eve will break all records.

The company expects to sell twice as much bottled water this December as it normally does in the current peak month, July.

Stores will be asked to stock four shelves of bottled water in various sizes in prominent locations, along with extra logs, more batteries, flashlights, first-aid kits, ice chests and chlorine bleach. The company also plans to order 20 percent to 25 percent more grocery items.

7-Eleven expects to sell 1.1 million battery units this December, compared with 750,000 in the same month in 1998.

Officials at 7-Eleven say they will carry four times as many newspapers on New Year's Eve and Day, because many people will want them as souvenirs. It also is stocking up on coffee, because its outlets will be offering it free all night.

Company executives are arranging to have cellular phones at all stores in case of power outages. Headquarters staff will be working at a command center--the champagne on ice just a few feet away.

"We're hoping everything is peaceful and calm as can be," Keyes said. "We'll have twice the reason to celebrate."

According to a recent ABC News poll, of those who are planning to prepare for Y2K, buying water and food tops the list.

Q: Are you personally planning to do anything to reduce possible disruptions in your own life as a result of the Y2K issue?

No 66%

Yes 29%

No opinion 4%

NOTE: Figures are rounded

Asked of those who said yes, above:

What would that be?*

Stockpiling water, food, consumer goods: 13%

Stockpiling money or valuables: 8

Assembling personal financial records: 6

Buying other supplies: 4

Fixing home computer: 3

Adjusting travel plans: 1

Selling stock / other securities: 1

Other: 2

* Percentages are of total sample; multiple responses accepted.

NOTE: Poll conducted March 5-8, 1999, by ICR Survey Research; 1,015 adults surveyed; margin of error of plus or minus 3 percent. For more of poll, see: www.cloakroom.com/members/polltrack/national/issues/y2k.htm.