In addition to the usual 10 essential products, we decided to also test this month's indies on another footfall driver - infant care. Balihar Khalsa reports 

Children are big business. Recent estimates suggest raising a child costs about £8,000 a year.

The category should present a great opportunity for the independents, but are they getting their share of that spend? This month, our mystery shopper visited stores in the south of England to find out.

On the whole, the retailers performed well. Babyfood and nappies were on sale in each of the stores, though some were caught out on items such as infant milk formula.

"For the amount of business we do on infant care products, I think we have a good range," says Richard Swanborough, the owner of Woodfalls Post Office, which stocked three of the five items. "I have always tried to sell a little bit of everything so people can get what they need."

According to The Grocer's 2008 Top Products Survey, Calpol was a clear leader in the infant medicine category, outselling the next bestselling brand by almost three times. Despite this, however, only two of the five retailers sold it.

The standard of customer service varied somewhat between the stores visited. Although most staff had a strong knowledge of product availability, some seemed reluctant to offer assistance.

Staff at the Londis store were "in their own little world", according to our shopper, while those at McColl's were deeply engrossed in conversation in the back room, forcing her to wait until a shelf stacker came to the checkout.

The staff at Woodfalls Post Office, however, were a breath of fresh air. Customer service was exemplary from the moment our shopper stepped inside the store to a warm greeting.

"I believe we have done well because of the continuity of proprietor and staff," says Swanborough. "Our motto is 'keep your staff, keep your customers'. People like to see familiar faces in their local shop."

Tesco Express
Address: Nutshalling Close, Southampton
Time & date: 8 January 2009 at 11am

Our shopper visited during a pre-lunchtime lull. The store was easy to navigate and well merchandised, providing every item on our shopping list. Staff, including two checkout assistants and one shelf stacker, were friendly and knowledgeable, making it an all-round enjoyable shop.

Address: Eastleigh, Hampshire
Time & date: 8 January 2009 at 12pm

Though it was lunch hour, this Lidl store was fairly quiet. The aisles were well stocked, but our shopper was left confused by a rather chaotic series of displays. That said, when asked for assistance in finding the baby products, a member of staff was polite and directed our shopper to the appropriate fixture.

Address: Lodge Road, Southampton
Time & date: 8 January 2009 at 1.05pm

Located on a busy road leading to a residential area, this store had cluttered shelves and narrow aisles, making it feel a little claustrophobic. Items on the list were difficult to locate, the fresh offer was disappointing and no bananas were in stock. Worse still, staff were too busy chatting to each other to bother acknowledging our shopper on arrival.

Address: North Baddesley, Southampton
Time & date: 8 January 2009 at 2.15pm

At this store, nestled in the middle of a large housing estate, our shopper was greeted by a boarded up glass door - apparently the result of vandalism. A sign advertised fresh bakery products, but inside the store these were conspicuous by their absence. Neglected stacks of tins sat waiting to be put on shelves. To top off a disappointing visit, our shopper was forced to wait at the checkout while the assistants finished their conversation.

Woodfalls Post Office
Address: Woodfalls, Salisbury
Time & date: 8 January 2009 at 3.25pm

This shop, which doubles up as a Post Office, was clearly the hub of its local community. Recently extended to house a wider range of products, the shop stocked not only fresh fruit and vegetables, but also fresh meat, local dairy products and freshly made rolls. Infant care products were also stocked and were displayed in a dedicated personal care section.

Every item on the shopping list was available - a rarity for an independent - and staff were polite and smartly turned out, dressed in matching green aprons.