High street sales fell more sharply than feared in November despite retailers hitting back with sales events.
Just 16 per cent of high street retailers told the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) that sales were higher in November compared to last year, while 62 per cent said they were lower.
The resulting balance of -46 per cent is sharply down from October (-27 per cent) and worse than retailers expected (-25 per cent).
Sales were reported as 'poor' by 42 per cent of retailers.
This despite major sales and guerilla sales events from Marks & Spencer and Debenhams to suck pounds out of shoppers pockets.
Retailers are also gloomy looking ahead to December, with another strong fall in sales expected.
Adding to the economic gloom, 16 per cent of retailers reported they have had to reduce their staff levels.
Andy Clarke, chairman of the CBI distributive trades panel, and retail director of Asda, said: "Christmas is going to be extremely tough this year, with retailers having to work harder than ever to keep the tills ringing.
"The added pressure of changing millions of prices, to reflect the cut in VAT, will be an unwelcome and costly burden.
"Lower petrol prices and recent cuts in interest rates should help put a little more into people's pockets, as will the VAT cut, but only if retailers pass it on before Christmas."
Looking at individual sectors, those linked to the housing market continued to suffer but there was also a sharp decline in sales volumes in the grocers sector, ending two years of continuous growth, the CBI said. Only the footwear and leather sector reported sales growth.