In July, Murco said it was pulling out of forecourts and now Total is threatening to throw in the towel. If they can’t find a profit, who can, asks Beth Phillips

There are more than 31 million cars on the road, but fewer than 9,000 petrol stations and if recent announcements by the oil majors are anything to go by, that number could be about to fall dramatically.

Last week, French oil giant Total revealed it was considering selling its retail business in the UK. Total has 780 sites and accounts for 9% of the UK fuel market, selling more than three billion litres of fuel a year. The exit comes two months after US oil company Murphy Oil revealed it was selling off Murco, its 457-strong UK retail estate.

The departure of two of the biggest players will come as a devastating blow to an industry that has seen a steep decline in forecourt numbers since the 1970s. So why are they leaving? And more importantly, who if anyone is going to pick up the slack?

Looking at their financials (Total's first half profits were up 72% and Murphy Oil's 28%), it's hard to understand why either would want to exit a market charging as much for petrol as the UK.

However, most of their profits are derived from the exploratory and production sides of their business, not the retail side especially not in the UK where taxes are the highest in Europe and account for around 80p of a 120p litre of petrol.

Record oil prices and unfavourable exchange rates are heaping on the pressure, says Brian Madderson, chairman of the RMI Independent Petrol Retailers Association. "No one is making any fat margins and taxes are continuing to rise," he says. "There's going to be a further increase in October and another two in January. We're also expecting volumes to decline this year."

The multiple grocers have played their part too, with Asda and Morrisons slashing the price of petrol over the summer turning fuel into a footfall driver rather than money-spinner.

Add to this the fact that the economy remains fragile at best and forecourt operators look peculiarly vulnerable at the moment.

As one industry source points out: "Forecourts are more susceptible to the economic climate. People are driving less and therefore filling up less. They're also avoiding buying items in forecourt stores because they know they command a premium."

That Murco and Total want to intensify their focus 'upstream' on exploring and producing oil rather than selling it should be no surprise under these circumstances on the retail side, it would make more sense to increase their focus on emerging markets where there are still profits to be made, suggests Madderson.

They could find it difficult to attract buyers, however, believe retailers. "While most large groups are looking to acquire new sites, it is only sites with potential and that are worthy of the investment that will be of interest," says one.

There is unlikely to be much appetite from the mults. Only Tesco has an out-and-out forecourt offer these days, which it runs in partnership with Esso. As for the independents, there is interest in the Murco sites, but it's piecemeal.

"We are looking at their portfolio, but there are a glut of properties on the market, most with unrealistic price tags or onerous fuel deals attached," says one independent forecourt operator. "We would only be interested where we do see a real prospect of adequate return on capital."

Fortunately, that is something canny operators are becoming increasingly adept at improving. "The sector is looking to reinvent itself, with retailers continuing to deliver operational improvements and a more sophisticated and tailored offer," says Jamie Trust, a senior IGD analyst. "New, innovative formats such as hot food to go are coming to the fore."

Independents will still need the support of the oil companies, however, says Madderson: "Some consumers will only fill up at a branded forecourt, such as BP or Shell. This gives the indies at these sites a little bit of a competitive edge and if this dissipates, it could be very worrying."