On the first day of what promises to be a brief retail afterlife, the scene was close to normal at the Hechinger store in Waldorf, Southern Maryland's sole outpost of the expiring home improvement chain.

Customers examined potted plants at curbside, cruised cavernous aisles for just the right mop or broom and inspected scores of light fixtures.

But signs of the chain's fatal weakness were scattered throughout the store in the St. Charles Towne Plaza, by the intersection of Smallwood Drive and U.S. Route 301.

Empty shelf space--an indication of failing cash flow and sour relations with suppliers--appeared amid the wheelbarrows, caulking tubes and paint cans.

And the customer service desk bore signs hastily scrawled after Thursday's announcement that the locally based chain was going out of business: "No Hechinger Charges," "No Rainchecks" and "No Special Orders."

For the Washington area, the announcement that all remaining Hechinger stores would close by Christmas meant the end of an 88-year tradition. In the fast-changing Waldorf retail scene, the Hechinger store boasted unusual longevity. It had occupied its place since the plaza opened in 1987.

"Definitely, we're going to miss it," said customer Larry Swann, of White Plains, pausing Friday morning after buying four azalea plants. "It was a nice store."

Swann ticked off the items he routinely found at the Waldorf store: lawn mowers, air filters, rose bushes, flowers, mulch and engine parts.

Swann, 68, was a particularly loyal Hechinger customer. He said he used to travel to Marlow Heights in Prince George's County to shop in the Hechinger store there before the Waldorf location opened.

Now, like other customers who prefer megastore retailing, he is left to choose between the two home-improvement heavyweights whose stiff competition helped put Hechinger out of business: Lowe's and Home Depot. Each has a store in Waldorf within just a few miles of the Hechinger location.

Employees of the Waldorf Hechinger were well aware of their competitors' presence. The Waldorf Home Depot opened just 10 days ago.

"When you've got these big guys moving in, they're taking customers away. There's no getting around that," said one worker, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The employee said he had watched in dismay as successive rounds of belt-tightening reduced staff and, as a result, sapped customer service--a common source of complaints among Hechinger customers in recent years.

But, the worker said, "I really thought we were in the right direction when we closed [89 underperforming] stores and ran the remaining stores at a profit."

He said employees did not know on Friday what--if any--severance packages they will be offered.

It was unclear how many people are employed at the Waldorf Hechinger, and so stand to lose their jobs. Workers at the store referred callers to their Largo headquarters, which referred inquiries to a spokesman who did not reply to a message left on an answering machine.

In some cases the loss of a large retailer hurts owners of small shops nearby, who may notice a decrease in customer traffic.

But such a prospect did not faze Arvin M. Rao, the owner of Westlake Liquors, two doors away from the Hechinger store in the plaza. He said the shopping plaza retains a busy supermarket, a pharmacy and a video store, all of which help generate customers.

"It's going to hurt us a little bit," Rao said. "But not anything to lose sleep over."

He said customers would arrive from whatever replaces the Hechinger.

The store occupies space leased by Simon Property Group, the Indianapolis, Ind.-based retail concern that runs the plaza and the nearby St. Charles Towne Center shopping mall.

Simon spokeswoman Billie Scott said she could not speculate on what might come to occupy the space, but she expressed no doubt it would quickly be snapped up. "It is a great space in a good market," she said.

Eunice Minor, of Hillcrest Heights in Prince George's County, traveled to the Waldorf store on Friday to return some flooring. She used the Marlow Heights store until it closed in one of the chain's earlier reorganizations.

"Hechinger has always been there," said Minor, 57. "You feel kind of sad about it."

But she was keenly aware of one alternative.

"Home Depot's great," she said. "And I guess that's why Hechinger is gone today."