Retailers suffered a fall in underlying sales last month and the second-worst January of trading since the mid-1990s, hitting them with a "sobering" start to what is expected to be another "tough year".
Like-for-like retail sales slipped by 0.3 per cent, which apart from January 2010 was the worst performance for this month since the British Retail Consortium and KPMG survey began in 1995.
Stephen Robertson, the director general of the BRC, said: "It's clear people don't feel any better about the immediate future than they did 12 months ago."
The fall in sales was partly due to retailers being up against a 2.3 per cent rise in revenues in 2011, when sales rebounded after heavy snow in December 2010.
In a separate report, the Local Data Company said the average rate of empty shops in town centres stabilised at 14.3 per cent in the second half of 2011. This figure is above 36 per cent in Margate.