Like-for-like sales fell 0.4% across the retail industry in February as shoppers kept a close eye on spending because of squeezed disposable incomes.

Total sales rose 1.1% in the month, when food sales held up. But general merchandise – especially higher-ticket items such as furniture and electricals - felt the pressure, the BRC-KPMG Retail Sales monitor showed.

The performance was the worst since May 2009, excluding last April’s figures which were distorted by the timing of Easter.

On a three-month basis, food like-for-likes rose 1% and non-food by 0.1%, bringing the overall like-for-like rise to 0.5%.

Total sales advanced 2.2% over three months, reflecting a 3.6% increase in food and 1.3% in non-food.

Internet, mail order and phone sales rose 10.4% in February, which was the smallest gain since August 2009.

KPMG head of retail Helen Robinson said: “There is inflation in these numbers, so volumes are lower and with people making less shopping trips fewer retailers are benefiting from the limited spending capacity available.

“Consumers are readjusting their spending habits to reflect the reduced disposable income in their pockets and the key question for retailers is whether they have finished yet.”

BRC director-general Stephen Robertson said: “Against this background of deteriorating sales, the BRC has written to the Chancellor urging him to use his Budget to support retail’s essential contribution to jobs and growth by avoiding new burdens and removing existing ones.”