NEW YORK — Despite the thermometer’s plunge to subfreezing temperatures in recent weeks, coat makers sized up the holiday season as one of the worst on record.

Business did pick up once the cold weather kicked in, but it was far too late to make up for the lost sales and profits sustained throughout the fourth quarter. The warm weather and cool economy combined to submerge sales following a strong few years for the category.

But merchants said inventories are now relatively clean thanks to the late surge and a conservative plan early on, which bodes well for next fall.

Having been in the coat business for 55 years, Monroe Milstein, chairman and chief executive officer of the Burlington Coat Factory, ranked this past season among the poorest in his career. But he also was quick to note, “It’s been weather-related all the way. As soon as it got cold, sales picked up.”

Milstein expects to finish about 10 to 15 percent behind last year. Like last year, longer coats did not sell well until December. Burlington has marked down about half of its outerwear, which is “a little more” than last year, Milstein said.

The coat department at Macy’s Herald Square flagship was covered with markdowns, with many displays offering shoppers three additional discounts.

Bloomingdale’s Kal Ruttenstein, senior vice president of fashion direction, said shearling and lightweight down coats have been bright spots in a somewhat difficult season. Designers’ decisions to include shearling in their runway shows spurred shoppers to buy shearling in the $1,200 to $2,500 range, with Searle and DKNY being important resources, he said.

“Our numbers are coming in fine and stocks are in control,” he said. “What we have at this point are bestsellers.”

Another indication that price does not matter is the ongoing success of Burberry outerwear, which has been “excellent,” according to Ruttenstein.

Shearling coats have also been a standout at Saks Fifth Avenue, where Searle’s full-priced styles have been “blowing out” of the store, said Elizabeth Kanfer, junior market editor for outerwear.

Kanfer said. “Across the board, we’re doing well. We’re very surprised and can’t imagine we’ll have that much left over.”

At Neiman Marcus, outerwear is bounding back, thanks to chilly weather that had taken a hiatus earlier in the fall.

Ann Stordahl, senior vice president and general merchandise manager, said, “It’s been an up-and-down season for outerwear. It started out strong early in the fall, but slowed down due to unseasonably warm weather in November and December. With the return of the cold weather, we’re seeing a strong interest in designer coats, especially anything from Burberry, which has had an outstanding season.”

At Nordstrom, washable suede shirt jackets and blazers checked well in all categories during the holidays, according to a company spokeswoman. Real and faux shearling jackets were another hot item.

“Wool coats and more traditional styles did well, if they had some sort of new detail to add interest, such as novelty seaming, buttons or interesting trim like faux fur,” she said.

At Elder-Beerman, the 66-unit moderate department store chain based in Dayton, Ohio, bestsellers have included down bubble jackets, active-inspired outerwear and wool peacoats, said a spokeswoman.

Searle is one of the few chains that plans to finish the season “up and clean,” compared with last year. The retailer has seen sales climb by holding price points and hitting on the right items, said David Lazar, director of retail.

Well aware of the rampant discounts and incentive coupons being offered by major retailers, he said, “Our entire store is not on sale. If you hang in there and hold price points, it works. Shoppers have asked us if Moncler [outerwear] will go on sale, and we tell them, ‘No.”‘

Kohl’s reported outerwear and sweaters lead holiday apparel sales and continues to gain momentum, with apparel posting double-digit comp-store sales, according to a spokesman. – Rosemary Feitelberg with contributions by Rusty Williamson, Dallas; Kristin Young, Los Angeles and Georgia Lee, Atlanta.