At a time when retailers are scouring the suburbs looking for new store sites, at least one chain has decided to move into the District of Columbia's inner city, an area most other companies have abandoned.

Zayre Corp. is scheduled to open the District's first discount department store at the end of this month in Rhode Island Avenue Shopping Mall at Fourth Street and Rhode Island Avenue NE.

The $19 million shopping center at the site of formerly abandoned warehouses, built with a $2.65 million low-interest loan from the federal government, also will house a Safeway, Peoples drug store and Payless Shoes.

"We have been trying for three to four years" to find a site in the District, said Zayre President Maurice Segall. The new store -- which will be open 24 hours a day -- will be Zayre's 34th in the area, including the Hit or Miss and T. J. Maxx stores the company also owns.

Yet it is its first in the inner city. Unlike other retailers, Zayre has a corporate philosophy of opening stores in inner cities that have been abandoned and are now being avoided by other retailers. About 55 of the chain's 276 stores are near minority neighborhoods in cities such as Chicago, Miami and Boston.

"Most other retailers have abandoned these markets. We have not," said Segall. "We do very well with minority people -- the blacks and Hispanics -- largely because we run our stores cleanly with the same prices offered at our suburban stores."

However, noted Segall, the merchandise is not always the same. "The merchandise contents is geared to the community. If we are in a black area, the women's cosmetics are geared to black women who have different needs." Lawn mowers and other garden products are not as readily available in inner-city stores, while apparel abounds.

Financial analysts say that the inner-city strategy has proved to be successful for the $3.1 billion Massachusetts chain.

"It's been very important for them," noted Terence J. McEvoy of Mabon, Nugent & Co. "They've seen a hole in the market and have gone in. They give the customer what they want and have developed a tremendous loyalty in the community," he added.

McEvoy noted that in 1980, when riots broke out in Miami, Zayre's Liberty City store was burned and looted. However, three years later, in another riot, the citizens protected the store from looters. "They knew it was the only guy there," he said.