Safeway Stores, one of the Washington area's largest retail grocery chains, has followed the lead of its competitor, Giant Foods, Inc., and stopped marking prices on all items sold in 15 of its local stores.

Altogether, there are now 16 area Safeway stores where prices are not marked on individual items. Five of those stores are in the District of Columbia. The 16th, in St. Charles, Md., has followed the practice since its opening in January. Safeway has 158 stores in the area.

The removal of prices on items has been controversial ever since Giant first implemented the policy in early April as a cost-saving move. The practice involves marking items with special computer tape which only a computer tied into individual checkout counters can read.

Industry officials say the process could save thousands of dollars by increasing the speed with which clerks can handly customers while at the same time relieving store personnel from having to mark prices on every box, carton and container in each store.

Some consumer groups, however, compalin that the absence of prices on items no longer allows consumers to comparison shop for the cheapest price. At the same time, they claim, the computer often charges incorrect prices for items. Without readable prices on the items, the consumer has no way to spot the error, they say.

The D.C. City Council is currently considering legislation to require that prices be marked on almost every item for sale on grocery store shelves, except for fresh produce or prescription drugs. Both Safeway and Giant are contesting the item-pricing requirement.

When Giant first announced its plan to remove prices from items in its 127 area stores -- a move that angered many consumers -- Safeway public affairs manager Earnest G. Moore said then that his company had no immediate plans to follow.

But just one month later, in late May, Moore said that Safeway decided to try it on a trial basis in the 16 area stores. "What I said (earlier in April) was that we were not taking prices off at that time, but that we were looking at it," Moore said yesterday. "We decided in late May to take the prices off" in those 15 area stores.

The removal of prices was announced on fliers and advertisements posted only in those stores affected. "It only applies to those stores," Moore said.

He said that Safeway plans to expand the no-pricetag policy to an additional 20 additional area stores by the end of this year. Some, he said, like those Safeway company stores trading under the Townhouse name, will not have prices removed at all.