Three-quarters of consumers have reined back their spending on at least one retail category since the start of the year an exclusive ICM poll for Retail Week has found.

Entertainment suffered the most as 50% of respondents said they had reduced their purchases, followed by clothing and footwear (44%), and electrical items (34%). Just over 40% are also likely to save more and spend less this year. Food, DIY and gardening were among the most resilient sectors - 26% in each case were likely to spend less.

The findings came as the BRC said retailers suffered the worst drop in monthly sales for 16 years in March, but some analysts believe an unnecessary sense of crisis is being created.

Industry-wide like-for-likes fell 3.5% and sales slipped 1.9% in total last month, the BRC-KPMG Retail Sales Monitor found. Squeezed consumer finances and the uncertain economic outlook took its toll, but the timing of Easter - which fell in March last year - also had an impact.

Arden analyst Nick Bubb labelled the BRC’s survey headline “outrageous” and said the timing of Easter had “heavily distorted” the picture. He asked: “Will the BRC be brave enough to say ‘best sales rise for 16 years’ next month?”

A BRC spokeswoman said: “We stand by our figures.” The BRC stance was supported by some retailers, one of whom described trading conditions as “dire”.