Retail sales collapsed in March, when the stores sector suffered the worst plunge in 16 years.

Shoppers’ squeezed finances and the timing of Easter, which fell in March last year, resulted in a 1.9% year-on-year slide in total sales during the month, the BRC-KPMG Retail Sales Monitor showed.

Like-for-likes plummeted 3.5% year in year. Big-ticket categories such as furniture bore the worst of the impact but even food groups endured like-for-like sales below their year-earlier level.

Shoes was the only category to show growth in March, although that was frequently discount-driven. Shoppers sought out bargains in categories such as electricals, homewares showed its worst fall for two years and books suffered its biggest year-on-year fall since 2005.

BRC director-general Stephen Robertson said: “This is the worst drop in total sales since we first collected these figure in 1995. Non-food retailers were particularly hard-hit. This is strong evidence of the pressure customers and traders are under.

“This year’s later Easter is a factor but this fall goes way beyond anything that can be explained by that alone. Uncomfortably high inflation and low wage growth have produced the first year-on-year fall in disposable incomes for 30 years.

“Mounting fuel and utility costs, falling house prices, higher VAT and the prospect of more tax rises and job losses left people unwilling to spend unless they really had to.”

IGD chief executive Joanne Denney-Finch said that like-for-like food sales growth was flat once the effect of Easter falling in March last year is stripped out. She said consumers “are not looking to trade down in quality but are reassessing what offers the best value.”

On a three-month basis, food like-for-likes slipped 0.3% and general merchandise was down 1.1%.

Sales over the internet, by mail order and phone climbed 7.5% year-on-year during March, which was the smallest rise since October 2008 when the BRC began compiling that data.