Giant and Safeway stores generally located in upper-income District neighborhoods allow customers to write personal checks for up to $25 more than the cost of their groceries.
But Safeway and Giant stores in poorer city neighborhoods generally limit personal checks to $10 more than the cost of groceries.
A Washington Post survey, which included visits and telephone calls to the six Giant and 21 Safeway stores in the District, showed a pattern of check-cashing limits that varied according to the general income level of the neighborhood where a store was situated.
For example, all Safeway and Giant stores located west of Rock Creek Park, in the city's most affluent area, cash checks for up to $25 more than the price of groceries.
Other Safeway stores with the $25 limit include branches in the Watergate, in Michigan Park, an upper income area in upper Northeast, and in Southwest and on Capitol Hill, two neighborhoods that are split largely between professionals and families receiving government assistance.
But at the Safeway store at 301 Rhode Island Ave. NW in LeDroit Park, checks are limited to $5 more than groceries, the lowest in the city. At Safeway and Giant stores located in working-class and low-income areas east of the Anacostia River, the limit is $10. The exception on the other side of the Anacostia is the Safeway serving the middle-class area of Hillcrest, where the limit is $20.
In changing neighborhoods such as Adams-Morgan, where the Safeway store at 1747 Columbia Rd. NW recently lowered its limit from $25 to $15, and at the O Street Giant in Shaw, an area where gentrification is less widespread, the limit is $10.
On Capitol Hill, the Safeway Store at 415 14th St. SE cashes checks for up to $25, but the limit is $10 at two neighboring stores -- 228 Seventh St. SE and the Hechinger Mall Safeway, 1601 Maryland Ave. NE.
Some suburban Safeway and Giant stores have $50 check limits.
At all Safeway and Giant stores, customers can write checks for the total cost of their groceries, plus an additional amount that will be returned to them in cash. Giant stores accept checks from customers who have applied for and received a check-cashing card from Giant.
At Safeway, customers must also apply for check-cashing privileges, but they receive no card. The name is kept on file at the store where the applicaton was made.
Customers with check-cashing privileges can shop at any store in the chain and can therefore take advantage of higher check-cashing limits offered by stores outside their immediate neighborhoods, according to spokesmen for both supermarkets.
Giant spokesman Barry Scher said officials set check limits "based on check loss experience at each store. We are not a bank, and we cash checks above the amount of groceries for a customer's convenience. How much above depends upon bad check losses per store."
He emphasized that "it's simply based on loss experiences per store. It doesn't matter whether it's in Maryland, Virginia or the District."
Scher added later, "Bad check losses for a company like Giant are most significant." Scher declined to give a comparative breakdown of bad check losses for Giant stores in the District. Scher said, however, that Giant cashes 26 million personal and payroll checks in a typical year. Of that amount, four-hundredths of 1 percent -- or about 10,000 checks -- are uncollectible, Scher said.
At Safeway, each store manager establishes the check-cashing limit with the approval of the district manager, said Safeway spokesman Ernie Moore. Bad check losses could affect the limit but are not the primary reason for the variations in limits, Moore said.
"It depends on the store's volume and how much check cashing they do so as not to preclude them from running out of money," Moore said. "It depends on how much money we have on hand."
When asked to explain the $5 limit at the Rhode Island Avenue Safeway, Moore said, "That store does a very heavy food stamp and WIC Women, Infants and Children voucher business and doesn't take in as much cash as a comparable store."
Moore added, "Again, it depends on the volume of the store. Certainly bad checks could have an influence on it."
Differences in check-cashing limits do not violate city law, and the limits are not regulated by the city's consumer laws, said Joyce McCray, spokeswoman for the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs.
"We raised the question two or three months ago in a meeting with Giant on general consumer issues, and to my knowledge it is not illegal," McCray said. McCray said she raised the question after a personal experience with the Giant check-cashing policy.
"It's a personal service," she said. "A store can decide whether it's going to cash a check or not. They do not have to do it."
McCray added, "Some of us have to go out of our neighborhoods to get $25, because what can you get for $10 nowadays?"
The Food Marketing Institute, a nonprofit trade association for supermarkets and wholesalers at 1750 K St. NW, said a nationwide survey conducted last year of its 1,500 members representing 17,000 supermarkets showed that the average cost to a store for a cash transaction was 15 cents, compared to 42 cents for a payment made by check.
An institute survey done in 1981 showed that each week an average store collected 22 bad checks that were eventually paid and four bad checks that were eventually written off because of nonpayment.
"The average value of the checks written off was $50," said Jack Cergol, spokesman for the institute. "The number of totally uncollectible checks was four per store per week, or $800 per month they did not collect," he added. CAPTION: Picture, Giant on Wisconsin Ave. NW, like supermarkets in other affluent areas of the city, allows customers to write checks for $25 more than the purchase amount. Chart, SUPERMARKET CHECK CASHING