Tony Statom, a public relations man for the nation's biggest food store chain, offered an unusual sales pitch as he strolled about a supermarket on 7th Street SE, one of Safeway's smallest shops in the District of Columbia.

"Poor selection in there," Statom complained one afternoon last month as he pointed to an array of aluminum foil. He walked a few steps further. "Poor soap selection," he added. Elsewhere in the store, Statom eyed a cold cereal assortment. "You don't see any small Corn Flakes - they're all large," he grumbled.

Statom's reverse sales pitch was meant to carry a broader message. Officials for Safeway and other supermarket chains say they have had to close many stores in the District of Columbia in recent years because the stores were too small to be run economically. The Safeway store at 228 7th St. SE, near the Eastern Markets, exemplified the supermarket chain's view of its small-store troubles.

Because of a shortage of shelf space, Statom said, the small 7th Street SE store could not stock a big enough selection of food products to attract as many customers as a modern supermarket should have. In addition, he said, the employes had to spend more time restocking the store's shelves than they did at larger stores. The result, he added, was higher labor costs.

Some merchandise sold more slowly than it should, Statom said, because it was difficult for customers to find. Dog food, for example, was displayed on an improvised shelf about 7 feet high - the top of a refrigerated compartment.

The supermarket's storage section posed similar problems, Statom said. Because of its small size, it had to be restocked often. Juggling cartons within the limited storage space, he added, also increased labor costs. There was no space to air out produce, Statom noted. In addition, he said, delivery costs are high because of the store's outmoded loading dock.

Jack Holland, who had just taken over as the 7th Street SE store's manager, walked into the storage room. He appeared to share Statom's views. "It's one of the roughest ones to work in," Holland remarked. "There's no room."