The move presents a new threat to the small, independent grocer, whose survival is already threatened by the decline of city centre shopping.
Tesco and J Sainsbury have been quietly seeking out sites across the country for small in-town convenience stores, which would directly rival - and substantially undercut - surviving grocers.
Open for 18 hours a day, they would combine the low-price and brand-name advantages of the supermarket with the accessibility and long opening hours which have been the small shopkeeper's market advantage.
The supermarket chains have been searching for new ways to increase their profits since the Government's clampdown on the building of out-of-town shopping centres - a halt called too late to prevent the commercial devastation of numerous high streets.
Already, two Tesco Express shops have opened in the South-east, and a third, at Chipping Ongar, in Essex, opened last week. Sainsbury, meanwhile, is looking for 60 sites for its new convenience stores, which would be called, quite simply, "Shop".
Instead of the 15,000 lines their big stores usually stock, the new convenience stores will carry around 200 basic lines, as well as newspapers, magazines, cigarettes, cards, and flowers. They will be about a tenth of the size of a typical supermarket, which has 20 checkouts.
David Sainsbury, chairman of J Sainsbury, said: "Perhaps we let that belief [that the future lies in out-of-town sites] dominate our thinking too much ... there is still a lot of demand in city centres."
But Garry Craft, managing director of Spar, a voluntary organisation linking 2,500 convenience stores, said: "These two companies have purchasing power like nobody else, so of course we think they will have an impact if they move into this market."
About 60,000 small shops have gone out of business across Britain in the past 10 years. Now, however, the supermarkets' newfound interest in such shops has increased their market value. A corner shop making pounds 10,000 a year is likely to sell for pounds 130,000, against only pounds 80,000 three years ago.
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