The big oil companies have a short-termist approach to their forecourt operations, which could harm their brand in the long run, a leading independent forecourt operator has claimed.

Oil companies were too keen to dispose of retail businesses in favour of exploration and production, said Snax 24 MD Bill Ahearn.

The warning comes as Murphy Oil, which owns Murco in the UK, and Total UK look to offload their UK retail operations, with a combined 1,200 forecourts up for sale.

"With a downturn and little prospect of any improvement in the near future, oil companies have been told they must do something to turn the situation around," said Ahearn. Forecourt sites were prime assets that could make significant profits, he said. But selling them on now with fuel deals attached that restrict retailers to selling a certain brand of fuel for an agreed amount of time could backfire. "Once fuel deals mature, dealers will go to market and leverage much better fuel deals," he said. "This will make oil companies much more vulnerable in maintaining their brand presence."

Trading would be tough over the next two years, said Ahearn, predicting poor margins and slack ­demand. "Customers don't want to pay more than they have to for fuel and while brand still has value, price is increasingly the key driver," he said. "Add this to a grocery brand above the door and it's very hard to compete with."