A collapse in sales of vehicles last month reported by motor dealers overshadowed a tentative improvement in the experience of other retailers.
Motor dealers who told the CBI's distributive trades survey that their sales of vehicles were down on those in October last year outnumbered those reporting an increase by a crushing 72 per cent, following on an adverse balance of minus 57 per cent in September.
Demand for parts and accessories held up better, with an adverse balance of 19 per cent. But that contrasted sharply with a positive balance of 51 per cent in December. Overall, motor dealers with lower sales outnumber those doing better by 62 per cent of the sample - and they expect an identical outcome this month.
A majority of two-thirds said they were cutting back their orders with suppliers, more than double the proportion in September.
Mainstream retailers fared a little better. There, 42 per cent reported worse sales than last October and 24 per cent said they had done better.
That gave an adverse balance of minus 18 per cent, almost exactly in line with June, July and August - but a useful recovery from September's minus 24 per cent, the weakest outcome in the CBI survey's 22-year history.
Despite this improvement, sales were well down on a year ago for the fifth month running and the three-month average, smoothing out shortterm swings, remained unchanged from September's record low of minus 20 per cent.
Some economists suggested that the September result may have been a freak. Official retail sales numbers for September came in much stronger than the CBI survey.
At the same time, this relatively stable showing is expected to lessen the chances of another interest rate cut when the Bank of England's monetary policy committee makes its decision for this month tomorrow week.
Yesterday's survey found retailers hoping that the worst is behind them, expecting the rate of decline in their sales to slow during the run-up to Christmas.
Those expecting this month's sales to be down on November outnumbered those looking for an improvement by only 15 per cent - which would be the least bad monthly outcome since May.
"Retailers will be hoping there is light at the end of the tunnel and will be doing all they can to entice shoppers on to the high street, as Christmas approaches," said Asda's John Longworth, chairman of the CBI's distributive trades survey panel. "The effect of five months' very weak sales is now also having an impact on wholesalers and on the wider economy. People are clearly holding back from spending on big ticket items such as cars and the downturn in housing means fewer people are buying household goods or doing DIY."
The survey showed 43 per cent of wholesalers reporting lower sales than last October, while only 35 per cent saw an increase. The adverse balance of minus eight per cent contrasted sharply with September's plus 14 per cent.
For a second month the only retailers to enjoy an increase were grocers and specialist food stores. Among grocers a positive balance of 38 per cent was the best result since May. Shops selling durable goods were hardest hit with an adverse balance of minus 87 per cent, followed by hardware, china and DIY with minus 72 per cent.
One surprise was a relatively healthy result from clothing. There were reports that warm weather is forcing shopkeepers to consider a big pre-Christmas sell-off of leftover stocks of autumn fashions. But the adverse balance for clothes shops fell back to minus 14 per cent from minus 43 per cent in September.