Never mind that Y2K is still four months off. For buyers and sellers of emergency supplies, the right time is right now.

Only the expectations vary.

"Y2K is pretty much like a big snowstorm," says Howard Page, manager of Ranger Surplus Plus in Bethesda, who acknowledges the possibility of a problem or two come New Year's Day.

Some of his customers fear the worst, like the couple who recently cleaned him out of all 12 one-gallon jugs of lamp oil at $12.99 each. Page doesn't give volume discounts, but he won't gouge prices for Y2K either.

Indeed, light -- or more precisely, darkness -- seems much on the minds of end-of-century shoppers as they load up on candles, batteries, lanterns and torches.

Some flashlight buyers don't want to risk dead batteries, preferring Freeplay's $74.99 crank-handled lantern, says Page. It throws light -- two hours for every 50 manual turns -- and stores energy. In a pinch, such disaster necessities as a transistor radio or Gameboy, which otherwise require two AA batteries, can be plugged in to its three-volt outlet. Alas, it is too small to power up a cell phone or laptop computer.

Andrew Fonger of Recreation Equipment Inc., in College Park, cites a purchasing progression since February: water filters, stoves and lanterns (propane-fueled varieties are not recommended for indoor use) and finally, food.

For hands-free illumination, he cites Petzl's $38 single-bulb Zoom Adapter, which provides 22.5 hours of light using a 4.5 volt battery or 10 hours on four AAs. It throws a beam -- from very narrow to wide angle -- up to 90 feet. The lamp points straight ahead for walking or flips down for reading.

At Hudson Trail Outfitters Ltd. in Tenleytown, manager Stacey Cohen says several Washington and Maryland customers have "dropped five or six grand" on Y2K supplies, from sleeping bags to lighting.

The non-propane varieties include Uco's hanging, glass-encased candle lantern: $16.50 in gold or silvertone metal, $19.50 in red, blue or green. Candles, $3.25 per three-pack, last nine hours each. A reflector hood to direct light downward on, say, the dinner table, costs another $6.99.

Strategically placed near Hudson Trail's checkout counter is our favorite Y2K bonus item: a $1.99 Snaplight Glow Stick. Unwrap it and break it in two for 12 hours of green light bright enough to read by. Or give it away, unopened, as a New Year's Eve party favor.

DISHES FOR THE DECADES

At last, a millennium design statement with something to say.

A set of party plates from Pottery Barn comes decorated with themes from the past -- and signposts toward a cryptic future.

Nosh on a canape while getting the message, conveyed in a grafitti-like legend around each border.

We've come a long way, baby, since the days of decorum and starched shirts preserved on the plate marking the last turn of the century.

For 10 plates in this set of 12, Pottery Barn's creative team drew on fashion, song and symbol to recap the decades since 1900. Who could forget "Greed is Good" from the days of designer jeans. Bongos recall the decade when women actually wore poodle skirts. The slogan "Down With Demon Rum" sank along with the Titanic. (For those who weren't there, the decades are identified.)

The $49 set, arriving in stores this week, includes two more plates to tuck away for subsequent generations. One sums up the millennial spirit with a champagne countdown and an exhortation to live large. The other casts an eye into a future of implantable e-mail, free mohair and air-conditioned pants.

Nifty, as the Sixties plate says.

-- Linda Hales