The survey showed that 47 per cent of retailers reported higher sales in February 1997 than in February 1996. Some 23 per cent of companies said monthly sales were lower than a year ago, leaving a positive balance of 24 per cent. The balance has fallen to its lowest level since November 1995, and is lower than companies had expected last month.
Dharshini David of HSBC Markets said: "On the face of it, these figures suggest that retail sales will be subdued in February; in no way are we seeing consumer activity spiralling out of control."
Orders are even more subdued, according to the survey, with only 33 per cent of retailers reporting higher orders than a year ago, and 24 per cent reporting lower orders, leaving a positive balance of only 9 per cent - considerably lower than during the last few months.
However, the results look gloomy in part because sales and orders were so strong a year ago. Kevin Adams of BZW said: "In February 1996, retailers felt pretty good about things. The first wave of maturing Tessas boosted sales, and official statistics showed that volumes rose by 1.1 per cent in the month. This February was never going to be as good."
Price pressures are particularly subdued. The balance expecting price increases fell to 33 per cent in February compared with 51 per cent last October. Alastair Eperon, chairman of the CBI's Distributive Trades Survey panel said: "Price competition continues to be intense with retailers reporting the smallest annual increases in prices since August 1995."
Wholesalers' sales volumes rose in February by more than expected. Booksellers and stationers, grocers, confectioners, chemists and furniture and carpet retailers all saw market growth in sales compared with a year ago.