Retailers are increasingly being driven to focus on forecourts as a means of bolstering their estates because of a lack of suitable convenience store sites, according to trade bodies and property agents.

Ray Holloway, director of the Petrol Retailers Association, said that space and parking had become crucial factors in developing a successful c-store, which had made forecourts an increasingly attractive proposition. He added:

"A forecourt store can be anything it likes, because it has that space."

Not only had supermarkets recognised the value of forecourts, but so had private investors, added Holloway. "I have spoken to funding houses in the City and have ongoing contacts with consultants. During this year interest in the forecourt sector from financial quarters has doubled."

Sainsbury's is rumoured to be focusing on the forecourt sector as a key target for single store acquisitions, although the company has played down its interest.

One industry insider said the recent appointment of Euan McMurdo as head of Sainsbury's convenience property team, recruited from the property division of BP, was significant.

"I don't think that it's a coincidence that this appointment has been made," he said. "I have

been told that the forecourt market is a core focus for Sainsbury's in order to allow the retailer to grow its c-store estate."

He added that forecourt sites were more readily available and often more lucrative than many other convenience stores. As a result, independent forecourt operators were being tempted to sell potential sites, rather than pay for a convenience refit, because of the high prices they could fetch.

A Sainsbury's spokeswoman said: "It has always been our strategy to develop forecourt c-stores. We have 24 with Shell, for example." Sainsbury's has 243 forecourt stores, according to the latest figures.

Meanwhile, the major supermarkets sparked a petrol price war this week, with Tesco wiping 2p a litre off all grades of fuel and Asda cutting unleaded petrol by nearly 4p. Sainsbury's claimed it had reduced fuel by up to 2p per litre just days before the latest round of cuts was announced.