Indies have made the most of a sporting summer, bagging big names and capitalising on smaller events. With one eye on the Olympics, it’s time to push on. Beth Phillips reports

Who'd have thought it? In the run up to the World Cup, the big money was on the big players capitalising the most from the tournament. But in the end it was the independents who were the real winners enjoying 8.4% year-on-year growth in the 12 weeks to 8 August [Kantar Worldpanel], compared with the multiples' rather more modest 4.5%.

Some put in particularly strong performances. Landmark Wholesale says sales from its member depots increased 10.5% during June; Booker reported a 4.9% increase in total sales for the 12 weeks to 18 June; wholesaler Palmer & Harvey says sales in its Mace stores were up 7.2%; and Costcutter achieved its first-ever £13m sales week during the tournament. This week's Business Barometer found 60% of indies claimed up to a 10% increase in sales.

But as the annual results for Nisa-Today's shows, it isn't just the tournament that has boosted the independent sector's fortunes (the group posted a 11.9% hike in turnover in the year to 28 March, before the tournament even started). It's a whole host of sporting events and the wider advertising and promotional opportunities attached.

Ironically for the multiples, the sporting events that have really delivered the goods this year have been the smaller ones ones that tend to attract sponsorship from less obvious backers, such as Spar.

The retailer has been the official sponsor of UK Athletics since 2004 and the principal sponsor of the European Athletic Championships since 1996, and it hit paydirt last month at the Barcelona 2010 European Athletic Championships.

Nothing gives a brand more of a lift than a winning performance from the home team, and team GB took home a record haul of medals. Visits to Spar's new Ultimate Athletics online game site shot up 80% during the championships and better still, sales rose 11%. "It massively increases brand awareness, drives consumer behavioural change, captures data and drives product sales," says Spar head of marketing support Adam Margolin.

You can only imagine what Tesco, official World Cup supermarket of the England team, must have been thinking. To make matters worse for the multiples, even when it came to the World Cup, they found themselves outmanouvered. It was Booker after all that bagged the ultimate football legend, Sir Geoff Hurst, to front its World Cup campaign, targeting both Booker customers and shoppers to its symbol fascia Premier.

Competitions for both groups, as well as point of sale material featuring Hurst, prompted a "massive response", says sales director for retail Steve Fox. "The summer offers a great opportunity to grow sales and have some fun in-store. It was a chance to increase footfall into stores and gave shoppers another reason to choose Premier."

It was also a chance to become a bit more advertising and marketing-savvy. The symbol groups' traditional communication tool has been the standard leaflet drop, and they're still using it, albeit on a much larger scale than in the past Booker's Premier, for example, sends out five million leaflets during every promotional period. They are also making much greater use of out and out advertising as they vie for attention at national level.

Nisa-Today's, Budgens, Spar and Costcutter have all taken out ads in national newspapers in recent months. Although the majority have chosen to stick to the tabloids, Nisa-Today's appeared in The Times and The Independent after in-house research found that broadsheet readers used their local store regularly. The buying group ran a one-off national ad campaign for the first time earlier this year and is now running a new ad at least once a week. The move is paying dividends on two fronts, says CEO Neil Turton.

"It is a sign that we have become more confident," he says. "We have changed from a pure wholesaler to also a retailer and because of that we're attracting new members as well as talking directly to consumers with our advertising."

The next obvious move is into TV advertising. The first Nisa-Today's ads will air later this year highlighting promotional offers at Nisa stores. They follow similar moves by Spar and Costcutter, which is back on TV next month with a new ad featuring former cricketer Darren Gough.

Advertising isn't the only area in which the independents have dramatically raised their game recently. They've also upped the ante on promotions. Some have got creative. Nisa-Today's retailers Harry Tuffins and Stans Superstore joined forces for the first time to launch a two-for-£16 promotion on cases of Budweiser, Stella Artois, Carlsberg and Strongbow promising £6 cashback if England lifted the World Cup.

There was never any chance of a payout, but the promotion certainly paid off for the two retailers. 3,000 cases were sold on the back of the promotion, according to Harry Tuffins MD, Paul Delves.

To keep up with the multiples' eyewateringly low deals this summer, others invested heavily in their own offers. Musgrave Retail Partners GB, which owns the Budgens and Londis fascias, says this summer's investment has equalled its Christmas marketing spend.

Offers included case beer deals for £10 and a free pot of cream with a punnet of strawberries the latter matching a promotion running in Tesco. Costcutter, meanwhile, says it invested £500,000 in promotions, marketing and advertising this summer, with offers on Strongbow, Pringles and First Cape lifting sales by 104%, 121% and 71% respectively.

There's also evidence of more collaboration with suppliers. PepsiCo's crisp brand Walkers recently developed two-for-70p price-marked packs just for independents and will follow them up with 99p price-marked variants for the launch of Walkers Extra Crunchy later this month.

"We have been delivering growth in impulse by understanding our customers and their shoppers' needs," Walkers impulse sales director Jon Kyle says. "The insights give us the foundations to tailor activities and create bespoke displays, such as the smaller cases we did for Flavour Cup, and then to ensure our field sales force is providing independents with the best possible advice to continue the positive performance within the crisps, snacks and nuts category."

Suppliers and wholesalers have also been working to incentivise retailers. Earlier this year, Cadbury launched a tailored nationwide Cadbury Creme Egg display competition for indies. As well as providing PoS to stores, Cadbury asked them to send in pictures of their creative displays to be in with the chance of winning a holiday.

Costcutter is employing similar tactics. "An area we are keen to develop, and one that has worked well to date, is our retailer incentive campaigns," says a spokeswoman. "For the World Cup, we invited retailers to exploit the materials and support we provided through their own in-store activity to win a cash bonus.

"This yielded significant results for the retailers taking part, including a reported sales uplift of up to 70% on alcohol products for one retailer who really got into the spirit of in-store theatre. Our retailers are already extremely motivated and switched on when it comes to taking advantage of sales opportunities, but this is potentially an area we will expand when it comes to future marketing activity."

With no signs of any let up in the level of marketing, advertising or promotional activity from the independents, the multiples could really have something to worry about come the Olympics.

Lessons for London 2012
The World Cup was just the start... if you really want to score in retail, the 2012 Olympics presents a £3bn golden sales opportunity, according to The London Organising committee.

For Alexia Robinson, the power behind British Food Fortnight, which will move in 2012 from its usual September slot to July to capitalise on the anticipated wave of patriotic consumption.

"British food promotions are the best way for retailers to benefit from the huge income stream that the Olympics will bring". Costcutter is already looking to apply the lessons it learned from South Africa to Stratford.

"The Olympics represent significant opportunities for leveraging sales," says a spokeswoman. It will be repeating its successful retailer incentive campaigns and building on its World Cup digital strategy, which saw it interact with consumers via social networking sites for the first time.