Hopes of a pre-Christmas boost for the retail sector receded yesterday after a key survey predicted sales would remain in the doldrums next month.

Employers' body the CBI said sales this month continued to fall at their fastest rate since its records began 22 years ago.

It came as shoppers felt the pinch from soaring fuel prices and the housing market slowdown, countering the impact of extended summer sales.

Half of the retailers questioned said sales volumes were down on a year ago in September, while 26 per cent said they were up. The balance of minus 24 per cent meant the survey was at its lowest-ever level for the second consecutive month.

John Longworth, chairman of the CBI's distributive trades survey panel and executive director of Asda, said retailers' profits margins were being hit by price cuts and higher fuel prices.

Consumers were being put off spending money by higher fuel bills, a reluctance to incur debt and the slowdown in the housing market. Mr Longworth said: "Retailers will be pulling out all the stops to get shoppers back."

Dominic Walley, managing economist at the Centre for Economics and Business Research, said the figures showed the retail slump was not only continuing, but deepening.