The Co-op Group has broken with 170 years of tradition by launching itself into franchising.

It has clinched a deal whereby independent service station operator MRH will pilot seven new franchise Co-op convenience stores.

A decision could be taken by the end of the year whether to roll out the partnership.

Jo Whitfield, Co-op Group retail chief executive said the deal would enable the society to test the franchise model and “potentially pave the way for further expansion to move the Co-op brand and our own-brand food into new communities”.

The first of the seven 1,000-1,500 sq ft stores opens later this month in Eastcote, in the London borough of Hillingdon.

The pilot comes hard on the heels of the Co-op’s trial 25-store tie-up with McColl’s to provide own-brand products.

Whitfield described the franchise route as “an exciting opportunity” to expand the Co-op’s presence further in the convenience sector.

“The trials with MRH and McColl’s demonstrate our commitment to bring award-winning Co-op products to more customers and members around the country.”

MRH chief executive Karen Dickens said she look forward to exploring further ways the service station operator could ensure its customers repeatedly chose MRH for their petrol and convenience needs.

MRH has more than 450 company-owned sites, mostly branded Esso, BP and TORQ. It has strategic partnerships with Spar, Greggs, Subway and Costa Express.

A Co-op Group spokesman said franchising represented a low-cost opportunity to gain space and it had undertaken a lot of work to create standards and guidelines which MRH would adhere to and on which they would be regularly assessed.

The mutual has not created a separate franchise division at this stage.