Almost a third of all c-store sales are now fresh food, marking a huge category growth through this channel over the past five years.

C-stores have often been accused of not getting their fresh offer right, but the latest figures from IGD’s Evolution of Convenience Retailing report show that UK c-stores sold £8.7bn of fresh food and drink last year. This accounts for 29.9% of the total convenience market compared with 23.2% in 2004.

The growth was down to a general trend towards healthier eating and a general improvement in standards, largely driven by the symbol groups, said IGD analyst and report author Stewart Samuel. According to IGD, 2008 was a strong year for the sector in general, with sales growth of 6.1% to £29.1bn compared with total grocery, which was up 5.1%.

The growth was driven by the symbol groups and the convenience multiples. Symbol group sales were up 7.7% to £10.4bn, representing a 35.9% share of the convenience market, while their market share grew 0.6%.

The convenience multiples category, which includes Tesco Express, Sainsbury's Local, M&S Simply Food and Martin McColl, had the biggest sales increase, up 12.7% to £4.3bn. The multiples also grew market share by 0.9% to 14.9%.

Symbol groups had reacted well to the changing economic climate, said Samuel. “As well as introducing new formats for stores, the symbols have been quick to increase the focus on value lines and improving their own-label ranges.”

Spar, Musgrave and Landmark had all improved their value offerings in the last year, he added. However, while sector sales were strong, store numbers continued to fall, according to the report, compiled with William Reed Business Media, publisher of The Grocer.

Total c-store numbers fell 1.6% to 48,751. Non-affiliated independents were most affected, with the number of stores falling 5% to 21,950. Symbols were up 2% to 14,630 while the number of multiples grew 8% to 2,812.