?Independent retailers are constantly bombarded by experts telling them the only future is in the loving bosom of a symbol group. Indeed, it is rare to stumble across a pure, non-affiliated independent retailer but, as our figures below reveal, symbol numbers are actually static. The real growth is in the so-called halfway house option of a fascia scheme.

Landmark Wholesale's Hot House store development scheme has almost quadrupled the number of its Lifestyle Express and Drinks Express stores from just 248 this time last year to 1,200. The other big mover, Bestway, says it has grown its Best-one symbol estate. But the major growth that has taken its store numbers from 920 to 1,630 in a year has come from its fascia scheme Best-in. Take-up of the Best-in brand has more than doubled in the past year to 1,200 stores.

Hot House and Best-in have two things in common. First, they are designed to offer retailers the professional store appearance, promotional activity and service that shoppers demand, without the more restrictive or long-term commitments associated with the traditional symbol contract. These schemes provide retailers with the fascia, help with store layout and keen promotions. In return, the retailers simply agree to source a certain percentage of goods from the relevant wholesaler for a defined period.

Second, they are both being heavily pushed by their wholesalers. In the past year Bestway has added six people to its store development team, giving the group far greater access to independent retailers. Meanwhile, last year Landmark secured the backing of more than 40 major grocery suppliers to meet a target of 2,500 Hot House developments by 2010.

Our results also show that the controversy surrounding the failed merger of Costcutter and Nisa-Today's has not had the negative effect on store numbers that many expected. Costcutter has managed to add 130 stores in the past year, taking its numbers up to 1,500. This comes despite the Nisa Members' Association's attempts to persuade Costcutter retailers to move to Nisa in order to derail the merger, and an offer of £50,000 from rival operator Select & Save for retailers willing to defect to its brand. "We remain very confident in the offer we have for our independent retailers," says Costcutter MD Colin Graves.

Spar, the UK's leading symbol operator, has experienced a minor drop of eight stores during the past 12 months but, with nearly 500 more outlets than the combined portfolio of the Musgrave Group's interests in Britain and Northern Ireland, it remains far ahead of the competition.

Musgrave, Nisa-Today's, Booker and Palmer & Harvey Retail all remained static, while specialist off-licence operator Bargain Booze added 50 sites, taking its total store number to 600.n