It was snow joke for retailers battling against the elements as Britain was gripped by the big chill. Many had to go and buy basic goods and deliver them to sites themselves

after main suppliers were unable to access roads.

Guy Warner, managing director of Warners Retail, said: "We had late deliveries from some of our main suppliers so we had to top-up with locally-sourced ones. I spent one afternoon going round local dairies to stock up after we ran out of milk and just shuttling it back to the sites. I now know how much milk I can get in my car 272 litres!"

Susie Hawkins, of the Simon Smith Group, went out to get supplies in her 4x4 after sites ran out of milk a depot in Gloucestershire provided 400 bottles. She said: "You just go into emergency mode."

Guy, who has two forecourts and three standalone shops in Gloucestershire, Worcestershire and Warwickshire, said: "I think the biggest problem we have is that we can’t get hold of salt and grit any more. We rely on it to keep our sites clear and safe. All our suppliers have stopped supplying. It’s been ring-fenced for government use only. It’s becoming quite an issue, especially with the forecast saying things will be staying below freezing for quite a while yet."

Shane Thakrar, head of business development at HKS Retail, said all sites were open although its Portsmouth site had been very badly hit by the weather. Shops were busy, with demand for de-icer, screenwash and scrapers and other car care products as well as coal. He said: "Local supermarkets ran out of milk and bread so we had lots of customers coming to our sites to stock up. Fuel deliveries have been hit a bit in the south and London but not too badly, and anyway people aren’t taking their vehicles out unless they have to."

Retailer Peter Brough, of Macclesfield-based Manor Service Stations, said there had about a foot of snow in local areas, and temperatures as low as minus 17 had stopped the snow from melting. He added: "There are lots of cars just parked up as people aren’t going to work, which isn’t good for business. Unfortunately, we haven’t seen too many panic buyers mainly because people just aren’t getting into their cars. And the car washes are all frozen."

Guy added that people seemed to be panic-buying more at standalone shops, especially bread and milk.

Susie praised the "amazing commitment" shown by staff, adding they had seen some interesting sights: "We asked staff at Monmouth to count the number of customers one morning. They reported three by car, 12 on foot and one skiing. Apparently the customer skied up, took the skis off at the door of the shop, bought bread and milk, and then skied off again."