The CBI's Distributive Trades Survey showed that disappointing summer sales had compounded the deepening problems on the high street, where sales have continued to fall sharply and jobs have been hit.
Sixty percent of survey respondents said sales in the first half of August were lower than a year ago, while 13% said they were up. The resulting balance was the weakest since the survey began in 1983.
Growth in average selling prices has eased back from a 16-year high, but remains strong, the CBI said.
A balance of 38% companies expect the retail situation to worsen over the next three months leading to a drop in investment plans.