Independent c-store chain Mills Group plans to open six stores next year despite the torrid economic climate.

The 75-strong chain, which operates c-stores and CTNs in the north of England, the Midlands and South Wales, was looking to add "quality existing stores to its portfolio", said MD Nigel Mills.

Although the UK retail sector was in the middle of a credit crunch, the chain, which scooped Independ-ent Retailer of the Year at The Grocer Gold Awards in June, was ready to expand again after acquiring just one new store in the past five years and disposing of 13, Mills said. "We are optimistic about the future," he added. "We have focused on a c-store development strategy, introducing a new model with a greater focus on fresh and chilled, but we are ready to expand again."

Despite the optimism, Mills added that it was vital to meet the needs of its customers in tougher times. It had recently introduced a host of in-store initiatives to help shoppers beat the credit crunch. Among them was a one-metre bay of own-label lines from Nisa-Today's Heritage range in stores, including kitchen towels, toilet rolls and squash drinks, to offer customers better value on essentials.

Mills had also increased the value of products on promotion from £35,000 a week to £65,000 a week and added additional services to stores, including 58 free-to-use cash machines, sub post offices and PayPoint terminals, he said.

Savings were also being made behind the scenes, on labour costs, electricity prices, paper used and waste disposal methods, Mills said.