The loading lane is an integral part of the grocery business.

True, some inner-city supermarkets are "walk in" stores. They can provide little or no off-street parking because of high land values, so they do a significant percentage of their business with people who live within walking distance.

But most supermarkets are in suburban areas where the owners can provide parking space -- and a loading lane manned by an attendant.

The attendants are a welcome aid to customers, especially to the 95-pound women who will have no help when they get home and must unload their canned goods, bottled goods, meats and other heavy items by themselves. The attendents also serve another purpose: At any given moment, an attendant at a busy supermarket stands guard over many hundreds of dollars worth of groceries. bIf he were not present, thievery would be rampant.

Even with attendants present, attempts are made to steal groceries. Consider this true story:

Lauren Addison spent an hour selecting more than $60 worth of food at a local supermarket and then wheeled her cart out to the loading land and left it with the attendent as she went out to the parking area to get her car.

As she drove into the loading area, Lauren became aware of a minor commotion. The attendant was running after "a tall, well-dressed man who looked distinguished enough to be a lawyer or a businessman." The attendant was calling out, "Sir, those are not your groceries. Where are you going with those groceries? Sir!"

The distinguished looking man had already gotten the shopping cart outside the metal fence designed to keep carts from being wheeled away and had been headng with it toward a secluded area in the rear of the store.

Just before the attendant caught up with him, the man suddenly abandoned the cart and walked swiftly out toward the parking area.

When Lauren handed her identification number to the attendant, he said, "How do you like that? It was your groceries he was trying to steal."

"Perhaps he made a mistake," Lauren suggested.

"Not very likely," the attendant said. "Here's his cart. all he bought was some paper towels. He went off and left them."

As the attendant was loading Lauren's purchases into her car, the foiled theif suddenly reappeared. He jumped into the new car parked just ahead of Lauren's in the loading lane, and took off "at very high speed." He didn't bother to take his paper towels.

Some advice may be in order.

When you park your shopping cart in a loading area, don't leave the register tape in the grocery bag; take it with you. If your groceries are stolen, you'll have proof of your loss when you report it to the store manager.

If there is no attendant on duty in a loading area when you emerge from a supermarket, go back inside and tell the manager you don't want to leave your purchases unattended while you bring your car around for them. The manager probably doesn't know that his attendant has temporarily abandoned his post.

Policy varies from chain to chain sometimes from store to store, but most major supermarkets accept responsibility for guarding your purchases until you get them into your car. That's why you should take your register receipt with you. Some store managers recognize regular customers and will readily believe them. Some will give you a stony stare and ask what proof you have that you really bought $60 worth of food.

It's bad enough to have to spend another hour shopping, even if you don't have to pay for your purchases a second time. Don't let the crooks steal your register receipt as well as your groceries. SHE'S STILL MY VALENTINE

Knowing how I feel about chain letters, Mrs. Eugene B. Casey couldn't resist buying a "chain valentine" for me when she saw one displayed. It instructs me to kiss the person whose name heads the list and add my name to the bottom. "In two weeks, 1,896 people will be waiting to kiss you."

By coincidence, the name that headed the list on the printed card was "Bernice" -- which is the name of the women with whom I've been living for 47 years.

I'm not sure she'll let me kiss her because I underwent some "minor" surgery on Thursday and she says I've been cross as a bear ever since, but I'll give it a try.