Pressure is mounting for the Office of Fair Trading to refer the grocery retail market to the Competition Commission as more lines of attack open up for independents and the row over the major multiples' land banks continues to escalate.
With just two weeks to go before the OFT makes its decision on a referral, campaigners for independent forecourts claimed their case could become a cause célèbre over the course of an eagerly-anticipated two-year inquiry.
Ray Holloway, director general of the Petrol Retailers Association, said any investigation of the grocery retail market should take account of the cross-promotions supermarkets run with their forecourt stores.
"Shoppers are offered fuel discounts if they spend more than a certain amount on food. Cross-promoting is not illegal, but it distorts the market. I have written to the OFT about this over several years."
Holloway now plans to raise the issue again with the Competition Commission if the OFT referral goes ahead. He said the number of independent forecourt retailers fell from 16,970 in 1994 to 9,764 at the end of 2005 and supermarkets' anti-competitive promotions had contributed to that decline.
Meanwhile, the GMB union has been compiling evidence about Asda's planned developments. It has identified some 54 planning applications in the pipeline, totalling more than £450m of investment. It follows revelations in the OFT's proposed referral document that the major multiples have 319 undeveloped land sites between them.
However, a spokeswoman for Asda said many of the sites on the list were being developed by an Asda-owned developer but were not intended to be used by the supermarket. In addition, some sites had already been developed and others were locations of existing stores where changes are planned.
Morrisons also entered the debate as outgoing chief executive Bob Stott rejected the idea of a review. He said Morrisons would tell the OFT there was no need for a full-scale investigation and that the issues it was concerned with, such as planning and prices, could be taken up with individual retailers concerned.
Rod Addy & Rachel Barnes