The BRC said that March's like for like decline was the worst since July 2005. However it pointed out that the earlier Easter, unseasonal weather and a spread of school holiday dates meant it was difficult to draw a comparison. However the March Easter should have pushed sales ahead of last year when Easter fell in April.
Clothing sales in March were the worst for eight years and were down on last year for the six consecutive month. Value ranges and accessories held up better than spring clothing which was hit by wintry weather. The BRC said that even upmarket fashion, which had outperformed the clothing sector as a whole for some time, showed slower growth.
Footwear showed its largest decline for two years with discounts and heavy promotions failing to get shoppers out spending. Spring footwear and sandals had a slow start because of the weather but high-leg and ankle boots did sell but at discounted prices. Designer footwear continued to outperform.
BRC director general Stephen Robertson said: "This is the first year-on-year fall in like-for-like sales for two years and the worst result for nearly three years. here is the strongest evidence yet that customers are making serious economies and are increasingly concerned about the future. With recent retail profit warnings, it is further proof that trading is extremely tough but retailers are fighting back by keeping prices low and delivering extra value."
Robertson added: "Hard-up customers and dreadful Easter weather conspired to dampen demand for DIY and gardening retailers and those selling clothing, footwear and big-ticket items such as domestic appliances and furniture but almost every sector except food saw sales slow down on a year ago. It's clear customers are concentrating on essentials."