The Washington area's supermarket behemoth, Giant Food Inc., charges less at its stores that are located near discount supermarkets than at its other stores, according to a new survey published today by Washington Consumers' Checkbook magazine.

The survey also says that regular prices at Giant and stores run by Safeway Stores Inc., the second-biggest area supermarket chain, are 12 percent higher than at the Shoppers Food Warehouse discount stores and considerably higher than at other discount supermarkets.

Prices at a Giant in Manassas, near a Shoppers Food Warehouse, were 8 percent lower than prices at most surveyed Giant stores, the survey found. Prices at a Giant in Warrenton, near Food Lion, were 9 percent lower than prices at most other Giants, according to the study.

"The clear message from this survey is that the Washington area needs more supermarket competition," said Robert Krughoff, president of Consumer Checkbook magazine. "Giant and Safeway have admitted to lowering their prices when they're near competition. But in large portions of the area, they compete with no one but themselves, and they keep their overall price levels almost identical."

Giant, which last year earned $108.4 million on $3.2 billion in sales at 150 stores in the Washington-Baltimore area, criticized the Checkbook magazine survey, just as it has criticized similar studies before.

"We say as we have said in the past, the study is worthless," said Barry Scher, Giant spokesman. "With 25,000 to 35,000 items in most of our stores, how one can make a valid judgment with just 125 items is beyond us, and we think Giant is comparable to everybody in the market."

Safeway officials were not available for comment. But Giant's Scher confirmed that there are price differences in individual Giant stores, depending on location.

"We have always said we will do what we have to do to compete," he said. "In certain areas -- but not across the board -- we meet other stores' pricing, just like airlines, car dealers and any other retailers."

Scher also had a number of other complaints about the Checkbook study, including a refusal by the magazine to allow Giant to review its methodology, inclusion of perishable products that Giant feels are impossible to judge by price alone without attention to quality and a failure to use private-label goods in the survey.

Checkbook's price survey was conducted April 11-13 and included 120 items. The group shopped at 18 area stores from nine chains. The average prices were determined by a combination of prices at the area's three main chains: Giant, Safeway and Super Fresh.

The Checkbook price findings show that Super Fresh prices were about the same as Giant's and Safeway's, while Magruder's prices were 7 percent to 9 percent lower. Two chains that are making inroads into the area also charged less. The North Carolina-based Food Lion beat Giant and Safeway prices by 17 percent. And the Pennsylvania-based Weis Markets prices were 3 percent lower.

Meanwhile, new market-share research to be released Monday by a regional food trade journal will show that Giant and Safeway have gotten slightly bigger. Giant's market share in the last year rose from 48 percent to 48.75 percent, while Safeway's numbers increased from 30.98 percent to 31.61 percent, according to data from Columbia, Md.-based Food World.

According to the Food World study, Shoppers Food Warehouse has increased its share to 8.73 percent from 8.1 percent. "They {Shoppers Food} have done a fine job of consistency of price niche and they are going to grow even further," said Ken Gassman, retail analyst with Wheat, First Securities Inc. "With them opening 12 new stores in the area in the next 18 months and the prices they have, they could move in on the big ones rather than just taking share from the smaller players."

That might be hard, considering Giant's clout. "Over 40 percent is extraordinary and puts Giant in an elite arena," said Jeffrey Metzger, editor of Food World. He said size and market share were not the only reason Giant keeps growing. "They are extremely defensive about their turf and they protect it voraciously," he said. "They are good at what they do and are still on the cutting edge of new ideas in the supermarket business."

THIS RANKING IS BASED ON A SHOPPING BASKET OF NONPERISHABLE ITEMS;

100 EQUALS THE AVERAGE OF PRICES AT THE THREE LARGEST CHAINS

STORE....................................PRICE INDEX

Food Lion.................................81

616 Faust Ave., Warrenton

Shoppers Food Warehouse...................87

10864 Sudley Manor Dr., Manassas

Shoppers Food Warehouse...................87

Little River Turnpike, Alexandria

Giant (near Food Lion)....................87

27 Oak Springs Plaza, Warrenton

Magruder's............................... 93

2800 Graham Rd., Falls Church

Giant (near Shoppers Food Warehouse)......93

8025 Sudley Rd. (Westgate Plaza), Manassas

Magruder's................................95

9100 "A" Mathis Ave., Manassas

Basics....................................93

16567 S. Frederick Ave., Gaithersburg

Weis......................................95

221 Muddy Branch Rd., Gaithersburg

Giant (not near warehouse competition)....100

5400 Westbard Ave., Bethesda

Giant (not near warehouse competition)....100

276 East Market, Leesburg

Safeway (not near warehouse competition)...100

4940 Bradley Blvd., Bethesda

Giant (not near warehouse competition).....102

842 Muddy Branch Rd., Gaithersburg

Giant (not near warehouse competition).....101

3480 S. Jefferson St., Bailey's Crossroads

Safeway (not near warehouse competition)....100

3526 King St., Alexandria

Super Fresh..................................99

480 N. Frederick Rd., Gaithersburg

Safeway (inner city).........................104

1601 Maryland Ave. NE (Hechinger Mall)

Tele-Grocery..................................106

Arlington

SOURCE: Washington Consumers' Checkbook magazine