Retail sales growth picked up in March but the underlying trend remains subdued, according to the CBI.

42% of retailers saw a rise in sales volumes in March while 27% experienced a fall, according to CBI’s latest Distributive Trades Survey. The balance of +15% is an improvement on February’s +6% and exceeded retailers’ expectations of zero growth for the month.

However, on a three-month basis, the average +19% balance is the lowest rate for 8 months.

Retailers considered trading poor for the time of year, with 40% reporting sales as poor compared to 16% which thought sales were good. The -24% balance is the lowest figure since August 2009.

Little improvement in the pace of sales growth is anticipated next month, with +18% of retailers expecting growth, compared with the +15% recorded this month.

Food and fashion were the best-performing categories, however growth slowed in both. Grocery sales, which had a + 39% balance, rose at the slowest rate in two years. Fashion recorded a +22% balance compared to +34% last month.

The biggest faller in sales volume was in the household goods sector which plunged to a -88% balance in March. Hardware and DIY also posted a sharp fall in sales for the second consecutive month.

For the first time in nine months orders placed by retailers with suppliers were down, with a - 8% balance.

CBI chief economic adviser Ian McCafferty said: “Sales growth picked up slightly for retailers compared with last month, but look beneath the surface and conditions remain tough on the high street.”