Saying it is committed to increasing sales even if it means lower profits, Giant Food Inc. reported yesterday that its first-quarter earnings fell 22 percent.

The Washington area's biggest food chain earned $3.35 million (69 cents a share), down from $4.33 million (87 cents) in the same period a year ago.

The drop in profits came in spite of an increase in sales of almost 17 percent to $313 million from $268 million.

It was the second quarter in a row of reduced profits for Giant, whose earnings in the previous period fell to $1.36 a share from $1.59.

The company issued a statement emphasizing its "willingness to make short-term sacrifice." Giant said the 17 percent sales increase is "an indication that the firm commitment toward maintaining and improving sales volume is proving successful."

Giant Food Financial Vice President David Sykes said profits were hurt somewhat by a two-week strike against its Heidi Bakery, but that wasn't a major factor.

Earnings also were affected adversely by a 22-week freeze announced in March on nearly 400 items, including private-label foods, generic prescription drugs, hamburger and chicken parts, he added.

Sykes said it was impossible to determine how much the price freeze has hurt profits or helped Giant increase its sales.

Giant's aggressive price-cutting is believed to be a major reason why the company has increased its share of the local grocery business in the past year. A study published last week showed Giant now rings up one out of every three dollars spent in Washington area supermarkets.

Its 33.8 percent share of the market is two percentage points better than a year ago, and an estimated five percentage points ahead of second-ranked Safeway, according to the study by Food World, a trade publication.

Yesterday's earnings report showed the chain's profits fell to 1.07 percent of sales from 1.61 percent.

Part of Giant's increase in sales came because the chain has opened four more stores since last year, bringing its total to 121. Six more are under construction, including ones at Shady Grove Road and Crabbes Branch Way in Montgomery County and at Clinton, Waldorf and Edgewater, and two in Baltimore County.

Two units were added to Giant's Pants Corral jeans chain during the quarter. The 28-unit chain will add units during August at the Fair Oaks Mall in Fairfax County, Spotsylvania Mall near Fredericksburg and Annapolis Mall.