ALAN G. SPOON, PRESIDENT OF THE WASHINGTON POST CO., IS NOT A DIRECTOR OF VITAMINS.COM. THE COMPANY SUPPLIED ERRONEOUS INFORMATION FOR A REPORT IN YESTERDAY'S BUSINESS SECTION. (PUBLISHED 06/04/99)

Washington area businessman Robert Haft announced yesterday that he will invest tens of millions of dollars in a new online vitamin venture and change the name of his nine local Vitamin Superstores to Vitamins.com.

The move comes just months after Robert Haft's father, Herbert Haft, who had been chairman of now-defunct Dart Group Corp., founded HealthQuick.com, which will sell low-priced vitamins and other health-care items on the Internet starting in July.

"It's a coincidence," said the elder Haft, who started the company with Howard Diener, former chief executive of Cosmetic Center Inc. of Columbia. "There's room for everyone," he added. "I'm just happy to be on this earth. I'm looking forward, not backward."

Looking backward would be to recall the prolonged family feud that Herbert Haft ignited in 1993 when he fired Robert as president of Dart. The ensuing legal battle grew so bitter that it helped topple the once-powerful retail empire, which included Dart Drug, Crown Books, Trak Auto and Shoppers Food Warehouse.

Since then, father and son haven't been in business together, and there are no plans to change that.

"My father and I worked together very successfully for 20 years," said Robert Haft, who is chief executive of Vitamins.com, based in Falls Church. "I don't perceive that we will be doing that at any time in the future."

The Hafts' online ventures appear to be targeting the same niche in the vitamin and nutritional supplements industry. Both cyberstores will position themselves as discounters guaranteeing consumers the lowest prices on such products as zinc tablets and evening primrose oil, according to the Hafts.

"We have a promise that it's the lowest price or free," Robert Haft said. "My father or someone [else] could go below that. They could pay you to buy vitamins. I don't know if people will do that, but we'll find out."

The Hafts will be competing not only with one another but also with a host of Internet vitamin retailers. Brick-and-mortar retailers such as CVS Corp. and Walgreen Co. also plan to push into electronic commerce in an effort to increase sales in the $10 billion market for vitamins, minerals and other nutritional supplements.

Robert Haft began opening Vitamin Superstores in 1997 and launched his Web site six weeks ago. Yesterday, he said Vitamins.com had raised $20 million and plans to raise another $25 million to build the brand. (Alan G. Spoon, president of The Washington Post Co., is on Vitamins.com's board of directors.)

"I assume my father saw the success we had, followed the demographics and wanted to share in this . . . market," he said.

Herbert Haft said he came up with his concept after endless discussions and research -- not by watching his son. "The Internet is the future," he said. Besides, he said, it shouldn't surprise anyone that he has delved into different ways to provide low-price vitamins.

"I have a history in deep discounting in books, in drugstores, in automotive, in the supermarkets," Herbert Haft said. "I took Shoppers from a 1 percent market share to a 14 percent market share."

Like Vitamins.com, HealthQuick.com has made progress during its short time in cyberspace. Founded in February, the company in April signed a two-year, $10 million agreement with America Online Inc. to market its vitamins, nutritional supplements and other products on AOL's electronic networks.

CAPTION: ROBERT HAFT