The late-winter freeze early this month kept shoppers at home to such an extent that retailers suffered their worse month since the recession of the early Seventies.
Forty-seven per cent of the shop-keepers replying to the CBI's March survey of distributive trades described their sales as poor for the time of year.
Only ten per cent said they were good. The resulting adverse balance of minus 37 per cent is the lowest since November, 1992.
Vehicle sales were down year-on-year too for the sixthmonth running, even though March is a month that normally benefits from the new registration plates.
Sales of parts and accessories, though, stayed unchanged.
"Retailers had been expecting stronger sales growth in March, but for the third month in a row, volumes failed to meets expectations," said Doug Godden head of economic analysis at the CBI.
"Some of this poor performance might be attributed to the wintry weather at the start of March and a reluctance for consumers to spend ahead of the Budget.
"But there is no doubt that sales growth has slowed on an underlying basis since the turn of the year."
This month, 31 per cent of retailers said their sales were up on March last year, but 40 per cent reported a fall. The balance of minus nine per cent of the total sample compares with a positive balance of plus two per cent in February and plus 14 per cent who expected an improvement in March in the last survey.
They responded to the disappointment by cutting back orders placed with suppliers, but a balance of 22 per cent still described their stocks as high in relation to their expected sales.
Sales of household durables bucked the adverse trend to report the fastest year-on-year growth. Grocers, confectioners, booksellers and stationers and clothing stores also saw healthy growth, the CBI said.
The sharpest falls compared with March last year hit those selling furniture and carpets.
The Bank of England's governor Mervyn King said last week that he expects the slowdown in consumer spending to be "temporary", indicating that the Bank could still raise interest rates this spring or summer
Official numbers from National Statistics have shown the volume of retail sales in the three months to February down by 0.6 per cent, the worst quarterly rate since the start of the war in Iraq two years ago.