Ask Walter Kirsch, co-owner of the Chevy Chase Supermarket, how he competes against two gigantic grocery chains, and he sums it up in one word: "personality." Then, sounding like a stand-up comic in the Borscht Belt, he expands by anecdote. "I had a customer last week, one of my regulars. She says to me, 'Walter, when I finish shopping, you're going to drive me home.' The only thing I said to her was 'yes, ma'am.' There was no doubt in her mind I was taking her home.

"I have customers who call me at home. 'Walter, I got some tickets to the football game. Can you use some tickets?' "

Kirsch's 27-year success in the grocery business has meant treating his customers like family and friends, giving them hamsters, sending flowers when they're sick, care packages when they marry.

Next week, when Food World, a monthly publication that tracks the grocery industry in Washington and Baltimore, announces its annual top-10 market-share survey, Kirsch's Chevy Chase Supermarket won't be mentioned. Neither, for that matter, will Sniders, Brookville Market, Mega Foods and other one- and two-man shows in the Washington metropolitan area.

Some of the bigger little guys, such as Fresh Value, Weis, Dayton/Mitchell Thriftways and Bonus Foods, will make the top 10 even though their annual sales account for less than 1 percent each. Still, they jointly share about 3 percent of the market, which is minuscule compared to Giant, whose share this year has grown to 47 percent, and Safeway, up marginally at 31 percent. Shoppers Food Warehouse, "coming along at lightening speed," according to Jeff Metzgar, publisher of Food World, is third at 8.5 and even Food-A-Rama/Basics, Super Fresh and Magruder's tower over these small players.

Put another way, Leopold Alonso's four metropolitan-area Fresh Value supermarkets total about 66,000 square feet. Giant's largest grossing store in Bailey's Crossroads matches that.

What's more, Giant's Bailey's Crossroads store alone grossed $56 million; Fresh Value's total gross is approximately $40 million. And as for staff, Fresh Value employs 250. Giant employs 27,000.

In the Washington area, where two chains dominate the grocery landscape, these small retailers are a courageous lot.

"We're always trying. It's like ready, aim, fire," says Richard Bondareff, president of Bonus Foods, who operates four stores in Northern Virginia.

While the corner mom-and-pop store has given way to a tremendous growth in convenience stores (7-Eleven, et al), the number of independently owned full-service supermarkets has actually remained steady in the past few decades.

Nationally, there are 30,750 supermarkets with an annual volume of $2 million or more, according to the Food Marketing Institute. Of that total, slightly less than half are independents -- defined as operators running 10 stores or less. The rest -- slightly more than half -- are chains.

In part, what has helped some of these independents survive has been the bankruptcies, leveraged buyouts and hostile takeovers that have forced some of the major chains to abandon all or a portion of their stores. In turn, these stores have been picked up by the independents, allowing them to operate without the tremendous costs of starting from scratch.

Bill Mitchell owns a Thriftway in Laurel, which in its former lives was first an A&P and then a Food Town. Mitchell says his rent structure, based on the original A&P lease, is "peanuts" compared to the mortgage he'd be paying otherwise.

That, in combination with union guidelines for lower wage and benefit rates, lessens operating expenses for the independents, says Metzgar of Food World.

While these factors may help the small operators survive, they still have to find their own competitive niche. And that, according to one food industry official, is a tougher task for independents in the Washington area, where there is a relatively homogeneous suburban population. There are fewer opportunities to do something unique that a big company can't.

As a result, one important way this small segment competes is simply by following the three most important words in real estate: location, location and location.

"With a great location, you'd have to be an idiot to fail," says Bonus Foods' Bondareff.

"It's close to home," said three customers shopping separately at Bonus Foods in Dumfries last week. Bondareff has also tried to focus on his meat department, knowing that his clientele is heavily carnivorous. "The best steaks I can buy in the area. We're big meat eaters in our family," added Tamela Gregory of Dumfries, as if on cue.

Another way they find a niche, as Chevy Chase Supermarket's Kirsch well knows, is by getting to know the customers.

"Their edge has to be in the service level," says Metzgar. "With a 25,000-square-foot store, you're not going to out-progress Giant. You're not going to outdo their specialty departments. You cannot have a pharmacy. They have to take the starkness and size {of the big chains} which some people think is a negative and turn that TLC factor into a positive."

As Jim Shipman, manager of the Brookville Market on Connecticut Avenue, one of two stores owned by the Shirazi brothers, says, "one customer called yesterday, she broke her ankle. We delivered two bags of ice. This is where we're going to fight the chains."

Barry Scher, spokesman for Giant Food, says, "We pride ourselves in the service we offer in each of our departments. Many of our staff people live in the community {where they work}. We like to do that because they know the community, they know each other."

Another advantage cited by local independent retailers is their flexibility when it comes to making snap purchasing decisions and their ability to have hands-on control. Every expense bill comes through Alonso's in-box, and he says he personally reads all the suggestion-box comments.

Alonso said that recently a chain rejected a load of prepackaged-and-labeled chicken leg quarters because they were priced incorrectly. He was able to purchase them inexpensively because the supplier was anxious to sell the 700 cases of fresh chicken. In turn, he was able to undercut the competition.

"We can change things immediately," says Alonso. "We can turn on the dime," echoes Jerry Snider, who operates Snider's market in Silver Spring with his brother David. The Snider brothers, whose father started the grocery business in 1928, have been operating in their present location since 1961.

But Giant's Scher contends that the chain is able to respond quickly to market conditions and price fluctuations. "We are a regional chain. Our decision-making process is very quick."

Clearly though, the independents can buy small quantities. "If a trucker comes up from South Carolina with a truck of watermelons, we can put a sign up" and sell them, says Henry Edwards, co-owner of Mega Foods, a supermarket that opened two years ago in the District and that recently filed for protection from creditors under bankruptcy laws. "One truckload of watermelons wouldn't do Giant any good. It would mean that each store would get four melons," he says.

Of course, this also means that an item available one week at an independent's may not be there the next, or for that matter, ever again. Chain stores offer consistency.

"We get a lot of one-time things," says Dave Snider, in a cramped office at the top of a narrow spiral staircase reached through a swinging door next to the red bliss potatoes. Indeed, the Sniders' store is jammed with unfamiliar brands of pastas, cookies, crackers and soups, stored in bins and coolers, at the ends of aisles, in the middle of aisles. Last week, there was even a full selection of pretzels, potato chips and popcorn for sale in shopping carts outside the store.

"They have specialty line items I don't find in the big supers," said customer Emil Maynard, who drives from his home in White Oak to take advantage of Snider's selection.

Yet most local independent operators say they are constantly battling their image of lack of variety, even though they believe that the big chains can squash variety by dominating a product category with their own house brand.

Scher does not agree that Giant's private label limits the variety of national-brand offerings; the chain offers 35,000 different products and sizes, he says.

Fresh Value's Alonso says he carries the same variety of products as the big chains, but less of them. Instead of having six cases of one brand on the shelf, he'll have one. "But in the customer's mind, we have less variety," he says.

Take Joe Liebersohn. Shopping at the Fresh Value in Kensington recently, Liebersohn said, "they don't have everything, which doesn't always please my wife."

Another image problem the independents battle is the impression that they are more expensive than the big chains. Consumers believe that since they are small, they must not have as much purchasing power as the big chains.

If interviews with a handful of shoppers at area independents are any indication, it's a mixed bag. Sue Furney of Silver Spring, shopping recently at the Fresh Value in Kensington, said, "The prices are good here." Furney will purchase coupon items (the store gives double coupons) and fresh fish (which she says is higher priced, but well worth it) there and will go to her local Safeway for the rest. She thinks Snider's has good deli items, but veers away from the Chevy Chase Supermarket, which she believes is pricey.

Nevertheless, Food World's Metzgar says the price issue is "a moot point. The independents are buying from a wholesaler whose buying power is comparable to chain stores." Unlike the independents, big chains have their own warehouses.

Several of the area independents purchase from Richfood Inc., a wholesaler in Richmond, which services more than 600 supermarkets in six states. Richfood generates more than $1 billion of business annually and operates a 1.3 million-square-foot warehouse, according to Joe Della Noce, a regional director for the firm.

In fact, a market-basket survey conducted by Washington Consumers' Checkbook Magazine showed that the prices at Mega Foods and Snider's were "indistinguishable" from those at conventional Giant and Safeways, according to the magazine's president, Robert Krughoff. Prices at Weis Markets, a large Pennsylvania chain with a handful of stores in Maryland and Virginia, were 3 percent lower than Giant and Safeway. The price comparison of 132 products will be released at the end of next month.

Jerry Snider speaks for all of the little guys when he says he monitors the chain store prices weekly, setting his prices accordingly. "If chains come out with an advertised price that makes us look bad, we'll change immediately," Snider says. "It's a cat-and-mouse game," adds his brother, Dave.

Whether out of fear or respect, the independents have nothing but good things to say about their opponents. The competition, says Bonus Foods' Bondareff, "makes us better."

Pricing aside, there are pluses and minuses to the wholesaler arrangement. On the one hand, since Richfood caters to a host of different consumer buying patterns over six states, the selection and variety of its offerings are considerable. On the other hand, although retailers can request specific items and ultimately decide what they will carry, Richfood makes the final decision whether or not it will offer a product.

This may cause problems if an item is being heavily advertised by a large chain but is not available to the independents. Recently, Fresh Value got deluged by shopper requests for refrigerated Jell-O pudding. The product was being test marketed in the Washington area, but Richfood is in Richmond, outside the test-market area. Ultimately, Richfood was able to obtain refrigerated Jell-O pudding for Fresh Value from its Oscar Mayer supplier. Kraft/General Foods, maker of Jell-O products, also owns Oscar Mayer.

But, if they can't offer the latest pudding product, at least the independents can sometimes offer their customers something more.

Kirsch tells of an incident about a month ago when a bus carrying the touring Cantemus youth choir from Hungary pulled up in front of the Chevy Chase Supermarket. Their interpreter explained to Kirsch that the singers needed lunch but didn't have much money. He gave the interpretor free groceries and said, "Have a good trip. Goodbye. Good luck."

Before he realized what was happening, 60 youngsters trouped into the store. In exchange for the free lunch, Kirsch, his staff and his customers received a free concert.