The number of symbol group stores grew strongly last year in a market once again characterised by a falling number of unaffiliated independents and a decline in the number of convenience stores overall.

The latest figures from IGD/William Reed Business Media - acknowledged as the official industry view by all the sector's major stakeholders - shows that the symbol group population grew by 4.2% in the year to April 2008, a net increase of 580 stores to 14,340.

There has been a 2.4% drop in the number of convenience stores overall to 49,350, compared with 50,734 last year. Unaffiliated independents continue to be the main sector in decline, with an annual net drop in stores of 5.8% to 23,108, although some of this reduction can be explained by conversion to symbols.

Other influencing factors include a decline in new entrants to the market, high property prices and family succession issues but, with the Competition Commission producing its final report this week, the figures provide further evidence that the Inquiry team has underestimated the pressure that the independent sector is under.

Forecourt numbers have continued their long-term downward trend, but with a drop in numbers of just 0.9% to 8,629, there are signs that this decline is levelling off.

The multiple c-store sector has continued to grow in size, with store numbers up 3.7% to 2,604, but with a large number of store divestments as well as new openings, there are signs that this category is approaching maturity. Similarly, the apparent static nature of the Co-op sector, with just a single net store added year on year, masks an underlying rationalisation of sites following a period of intense acquisition.

Despite the numerical decline in c-store numbers, the market has continued to go from strength to strength in terms of value.

According to IGD, sales through the convenience retail market reached £27.4bn in the past year, an increase of 5.1% on 2007.

Multiple c-store operators have been at the vanguard of this growth, with sales growing at 10.9% year on year, although here, too, symbol stores have more than held their own with turnover up 9.1%.

IGD business analyst Stewart Samuel said: "There is no doubt that the convenience retailing sector remains a market of big opportunity for retailers and manufacturers. Population changes and lifestyle factors are all positive influences, and we can expect the market to grow ahead of the overall grocery sector."

Detailed analysis of sales figures and sector numbers are available in IGD's new report, Convenience Retailing 2008. Visit for more details.

The market at a glance:

Symbol stores now number 14,340
11 stores a week being converted to a symbol fascia
Total number of c-stores has fallen below 50,000
Unaffiliated independents down in number by 5.8%
Multiple c-store numbers up by 3.7%