The convenience sector is in growth for the first time in a decade, but it’s supermarket chains and symbol groups that are driving this, the latest Grocery Retail Structure has revealed.

Total store numbers for the c-store sector rose from 41,031 in 2011 to 41,291 this year, driven by the continued encroachment of the multiples into the sector, the GRS report found.

However, the number of independent convenience operators continued its long-term decline, falling 4.5% to 19,237 - below the 20,000 mark for the first time.

In contrast, symbol group membership now stands at a record high of 16,407 stores, up 5.23%, led by Booker’s Premier, which has 2,700 stores.

But it’s the continuing enthusiasm among the supermarket chains that is having the most dramatic impact.

Tesco opened more c-stores last year than any other retailer, with 147 new stores across its Tesco Express and One Stop fascias, to overtake The Co-operative Group for the first time in terms of total store portfolio. And while announcing a massive slowdown in its large-format expansion plans, last month, CEO Philip Clarke said it would “maintain investment in expanding our highly successful Express business” in the next financial year.

Sainsbury’s was no slouch, either. Its c-store estate grew by 16.8% to 432 sites. Sainsbury’s revealed last week that 2011 had been a record year for store openings, increasing its space by 1.4m sq ft. And the GRS shows Sainsbury’s was the fastest-growing supermarket of the top 10. It grew its total estate by 10.5% last year to 1,030 stores. It was also accountable for nearly all the growth in the hypermarket sector - stores bigger than 60,000 sq ft. Sainsbury’s extended a number of stores in the past year from superstores to hypermarkets.

Spar, meanwhile, accounted for the fastest growth among the top 10 in the supermarket sector. Thanks to the growth of its Eurospar fascia, it grew its supermarket estate by 32% last year to 33 stores.

However, it was the only retailer in the top 10 to suffer a fall in c-stores, with store numbers down by 124, or 4.9%, in the past year to 2,427.

The Co-operative Group supermarket estate dropped by 15% to 793 sites as it sold or closed poor performing Somerfield stores.