For the past two years, Herbert and Robert Haft have failed in every attempt they've made to buy a new company. In the process, they've picked up nearly a quarter of a billion dollars in profits and established themselves as national players in the game of corporate takeovers.

Since selling the Dart Drug chain in 1984, the father-son team has been constantly on the prowl to buy a major retailing company. But every time they've tried, they've been thwarted by their prey, forced to retreat with nothing to show for their efforts but about $200 million in extra profits.

"They have made more profits with failure than most people have made with success," commented financial analyst Edward Weller of Montgomery Securities.

The targets of the Hafts have involved some of the biggest names in American retailing: Safeway Stores Inc., May Department Stores, Beatrice Co.s Inc., Supermarkets General Corp., Jack Eckerd Corp. and Dayton-Hudson Corp.

Once they took aim at a company, the Hafts, through their holding company Dart Group Corp. and real-estate arm Combined Properties Limited Partnership, would buy stock in the corporate target and then try to acquire controlling interest in a variety of ways. But no matter what they tried, it failed. In failing to acquire the company, however, the Hafts profited handsomely from the increase in the price of the company's stock.

"All you have to do is start a rumor that the Hafts are interested in a company and the stock goes up," said one financial analyst who declined to be named.

In late May, for example, Dart Group was rumored to be interested in buying Southland Corp., which as owner of 7-Eleven is the world's largest convenience-store operator. Based on these rumors, Southland's stock rose $6.67 1/2 a share in a single day. Then Dart, in an uncharacteristic announcement, issued a statement saying it was not buying Southland's shares. The next day, Southland's shares dropped $2.67 1/2. (It turned out, however, that another corporate raider, the Belzberg family of Canada, had been buying Southland shares -- a move that pressed Southland's management to announce a leveraged buyout on July 5 to avoid any takeover by an outsider).

As a result, retailers are taking Dart more seriously than ever before.

When Dart approached Dayton Hudson a month ago, telling officials it had purchased a substantial stake in the Minneapolis retailer and was interested in buying the entire company, Dayton Hudson wasted no time in formulating its defense.

Within days, Dayton Hudson officials sought the aid of Minnesota's governor and state legislature, asking for tougher antitakeover laws to thwart any bid by Dart. Although Dayton Hudson had previously opposed antitakeover legislation, the state wasted no time in acting to foil the Hafts. The state legislature was called into emergency session and enacted the antitakeover law within a week.

In other cases, such as Safeway, companies have quickly sought outside financial help to outbid the Hafts, arranging leveraged buyouts to keep management in power. "Everybody heads for their local investment banker to line up other options," when they learn the Hafts are interested in buying their company, said Jonathan H. Ziegler, an analyst with Sutro & Co.

Based on these reactions, it is clear that the Hafts are no longer "little-known Washington retailers" as they were called by out-of-town newspapers in their initial takeover bids.

Rather, they have become major national players in the continuing takeover game -- even though they have yet to win a company.

"Anyone who doesn't consider them and other people playing that game seriously is definitely making a serious mistake," commented Harry S. Mortner, an analyst with Cyrus J. Lawrence Inc.

What's more, an increasing number of investors who once believed the Hafts were only "greenmailers" -- only after the money they get from the increased value of the stock rather than the companies themselves -- now think otherwise.

"I tend to think they are probably not greenmailers anymore," said Ron Baron, president of Baron Capital Inc., which holds a large chunk of Dart stock.

For one thing, Baron noted, the Hafts have recently declined to sell back to the target companies the stock they purchased in their takeover bids. Such selling is a common greenmail tactic. Instead, they have tendered their shares to the successful rival bidder. Additionally, Baron noted, Dayton Hudson offered to pay the Hafts a premium to get rid of their offer. "But they didn't take it. That cost them several millions of dollars more that they would have been able to make," Baron said.

"Anyone who comes along and offers $40 to $60 a share has got to be considered seriously," added Mortner.

Even if the Hafts are not serious, "they have got to be the world's greatest poker players," said Jeffrey Metzger. As editor of Food World News, Metzger has followed the Haft family business over the years. "They are incredibly shrewd and know just how far to go."

For the Hafts, the quest to buy a major retailer began about three years ago, shortly after they sold the drugstore chain that Herbert, 66, founded in the mid-1950s. In 1984, after building Dart Drug Stores from a small pharmacy in Adams Morgan -- the first to discount prices in the area -- into a chain of 73 stores, Herbert and his son Robert, 34, sold the stores for $160 million to the management team that was running the stores.

The Hafts still maintain control of two other discount-retail chains they had created -- Crown Books Corp. and Trak Auto Corp. Even so, it was clear they wanted more retailers -- and far larger ones.

First the Hafts pursued May Department Stores, the nation's third-largest department store operator that owns the local Hecht Co. In early 1985, Dart announced it had purchased 824,00 shares -- or 2 percent of the company -- for $33.2 million. What's more, Dart expressed an interest in buying May.

But the company resisted Dart by arranging a complicated real-estate deal that made an unfriendly takeover difficult. Dart subsequently sold its May shares, making a $1.4 million profit in about two months.

Three months later, Dart announced it had acquired a 5 percent stake in Jack Eckerd Corp., the nation's second-largest drugstore chain, for about $46.5 million. That report sent Eckerd stock soaring and Eckerd management scrambling to avoid a takeover. In less than a month, Eckerd announced plans to sell its 207-unit video-store chain and its 55 department stores -- a move designed to make the chain less attractive to outside buyers.

Still worried about Dart, Eckerd agreed to buy back the Haft's stake -- at the then market price of $29.50 a share. But because Dart had purchased 1.9 million shares for an average $24.70, the Hafts made $9 million in the transaction. Additionally, Eckerd agreed to pay Dart's $1 million in expenses.

Even though the Hafts dropped their interest in Eckerd, the drugstore chain still feared a takeover attempt from an outsider. So within three months after buying back the Haft's shares, Eckerd announced a leveraged buyout in which corporate management bought back the publicly held shares for $1.6 billion and became a privately held company.

Next, Dart made a bid to buy the consumer-products conglomerate Beatrice Cos. Inc. Sources close to Dart say the Hafts were invited in to make a counteroffer against a hostile bidder. But the hostile bidder won out. Unlike its other deals, Dart did not acquire a stake in Beatrice.

Then in the summer of 1986, Dart went after its biggest target: Safeway, a company whose yearly sales of $19.6 billion towered over the $235 million annual sales of the retailing companies Dart was running at the time.

The Hafts, after buying a 5.9 percent stake in Safeway for $150 million at an average $41.15 a share, initially bid $3.6 billion, or $58 a share, for Safeway. They subsequently upped their bid to $3.9 billion before Safeway turned them down, opting instead for a $4.1 billion leveraged buyout. Safeway paid $69 a share to buy back the company's publicly held stock by using the company's assets as collateral to obtain outside financing.

Although unsuccessful, the Hafts reaped about $140 million from their efforts -- including an $80 million net profit from tendering their shares to Safeway. The price of their Safeway stock had risen about 66 percent from the time they bought it. The Hafts also received a $59 million payment to drop an option that they received that would have given them the opportunity to buy part of the Safeway chain after the leveraged buyout was completed.

Safeway, meanwhile, has undergone a dramatic reorganization since the buyout to reduce the massive debt it incurred. More than 300 stores have been sold or closed and 8,000 employes have been laid off.

For the most part, the Hafts have declined to discuss their takeover efforts and the money they have made.

Yet, in the case of Safeway, Robert Haft is quick to discuss the aftermath -- bristling at charges that their bid resulted in the chain's dismemberment.

"I think it's insane what they are doing," to Safeway, Haft said last week. If Dart had bought the chain, he added, "Our plans were not to fire workers and close divisions. Our view was to bring the chain up to date and give it marketing help to be more in step with the industry" in achieving greater returns.

Responding to Haft's comments, Safeway senior vice president for public affairs, Robert E. Bradford, said: "The Hafts failed in their attempt to acquire Safeway ... . This fact goes far to explain the motivation behind their comments about Safeway management."

After Safeway, the Hafts reportedly set their sights on Federated Department Stores, which, as the parent company of a number of department and specialty stores (including Bloomingdale's, I. Magnin and Filene's), is the nation's second-largest department store operator.

Last November, Federated announced it had bought back 2.2 million of its shares -- or 4.5 percent of all its stock outstanding -- "in a private transaction from a single holder" for $194.7 million. Although Federated declined to identify the seller, Wall Street sources said it was Dart.

The Hafts have declined to confirm or deny the rumors.

Yet, unlike its other investments, this time Dart apparently had a loss. At the company's annual meeting last spring, Federated's chairman Howard Goldfeder said it was the company's "understanding that the seller lost a significant amount of money." Some investors calculate the loss around $6 million.

Even so, some Wall Street sources believe Dart had made about a $3 million profit from a similar investment in Federated a year before.

While Dart was buying stock in Federated in late 1986, the company was also rumored to be acquiring a large stake in Stop & Shop Cos. Inc., the owner of the New England supermarket chain and the discount department store Bradlees as well.

Based on those rumors, Stop & Shop's stock rose sharply in the fall, climbing from around $47 as share to a high of $59.75 in about two weeks.

But sources close to Dart subsequently denied the company was interested in the New England retailer.

Dart was, however, interested in Supermarkets General Corp., the nation's ninth-largest supermarket chain. Last March, Dart announced a $1.63 billion bid -- $41.75 a share -- to buy the New Jersey chain, which operates stores under the names of Pathmark, Purity Supreme, Heartland and Angelo's.

Dart had acquired about 5 percent of the company earlier in the year.

Like Safeway, Supermarkets General was determined to remain independent. So instead of accepting Dart's bid -- which was also increased to $1.7 billion -- the company arranged a $1.8 billion leveraged buyout, in a package that was part cash, part securities.

In late May, the Hafts decided to accept Supermarkets General's offer and tendered their stock, earning about $35 million to $40 million in profits, according to calculations by Wall Street investors.

By that time, the Hafts had turned their attention to Dayton Hudson. In mid-June, Dayton Hudson Chairman Kenneth A. Macke revealed that the Dart had acquired a substantial stake in the company. What's more, he said, "We were contacted by {the} Haft family who said they wanted to acquire our company. We said we were not interested; they countered that they remain interested."

Dart declined to comment on its intentions.

Nonetheless, Dayton Hudson went to the state legislature and, according to Wall Street sources, Dart sold its stake in the company. It is unclear how large a profit Dart made from its Dayton Hudson venture.