Leading independent retail chain Martin McColl has predicted a tough year ahead but insisted it was still prepared to snap up smaller chains if the price were right.

Chairman James Lancaster admitted to The Grocer that sales this year would be flat at best and could suffer a slight downturn if trading conditions got any worse.

The c-store and CTN chain, which operates 1,300 stores, recorded an 18% rise in pre-tax profit to £15m on sales up 9% (excluding lottery) to £760m for the year to 25 November.

This cemented its number one position in The Grocer’s ranking of the UK’s biggest independent retailers for the third year running.

Lancaster confirmed that the 2007 acquisition of the 92-strong Smile c-store had been fully integrated and the stores were performing well. “That’s proved a really good bit of business for us,” he said.

Despite the deteriorating economic climate, he refused to rule out further deals. “We are always looking to buy stores as long as it’s for a fair price,” he said.