But retailers are upbeat about prospects for year-on-year sales growth in April in the Confederation of British Industry's latest monthly distributive trades survey, conducted between February 25 and March 12 and published yesterday.
In the survey, 36% of retailers reported sales volumes were higher than a year earlier. Meanwhile, 23% reported a year-on-year fall in sales volumes, with the remaining 41% experiencing a flat position.
The resultant net 13% reporting a year-on-year rise in sales volumes was down significantly from a corresponding balance of 37% in the previous monthly survey.
However, 47% of survey respondents forecast year-on-year growth in sales volumes in April, and only 10% predicted a decline.
The survey signalled a sharp year-on-year drop in sales volumes at department stores in recent weeks.
It pointed to continued year-on-year growth in sales volumes in the grocery sector, although the pace of increase eased significantly.
And it signalled continuing strong year-on-year growth in sales for furniture and carpet retailers.
Howard Archer, chief UK economist at consultancy IHS Global Insight, said: "The... survey indicates that retail sales saw moderate growth in March. Overall, the impression is that consumers are currently being relatively careful in their spending. They seem prepared to spend for specific reasons - such as for Christmas and to take advantage of the clearance sales - but then are inclined to take a breather afterwards.
Barry Williams, chief merchandising officer for food at supermarket group Asda and chair of the CBI distributive trades survey panel, said: "It's promising to see a run of positive growth rates on the high street, with sales up on a year ago for the fourth month in a row. We're hopeful that this will continue, but there are still signs that this needs to be a cautious hope. The pace of growth has slowed."