Retail employment edged up 0.5% in the first quarter of 2011 - the equivalent of 3,400 more full-time jobs - but almost one third of retailers expect to cut staffing levels in the current quarter.

The flatlining employment trend lagged the 5.3% rise in the number of retail stores - 837 shops - that opened between January and March, partly reflecting the preference at present for small shop openings, such as convenience stores.

The earlier timing of Easter last year influenced full-time equivalent job numbers and resulted in a 0.8% decline in March 2011, the BRC-Bond Pearce Retail Employment Monitor showed.

While 63% of retailers expect their staffing levels to remain unchanged this quarter, 29% said they would reduce them. Food retailers were most confident about employing more people.

BRC director-general Stephen Robertson said: “These figures confirm how tough the trading environment is.”

He said of the March decline: “That can partly be attributed to the fact Easter is in [late] April this year, but the difficult retail climate is the key factor and will be for some time.

“Consumer demand is weak and retailers trying to keep their operating costs down are less optimistic about future employment.”

The BRC survey comprises data for more than one million employees and just over 50% of the retail sector by turnover.