Clothing and footwear sales saw double-digit like-for-like growth in the first week of the month as customers bought autumn and winter collections, but faded as they were too nervous to fill their wardrobes with them.
David McCorquodale, head of retail at KPMG, said October sales figures had been like a "disappointing firework - full of promise, but eventually fizzing out with a whimper" and said winning a share of the Christmas wallet over the next two months would be just as competitive as last year.
Hopes for a continuing pre-Christmas sales revival were dashed today amid signs that consumers are still limiting spending to essential items.
In its worst figures outside of a seasonal period for 11 months, the British Retail Consortium said October's UK retail sales were 0.1% lower on a like-for-like basis than a year ago, ending the modest revival seen in September.
The figures heighten nerves in the sector ahead of the festive period, particularly after the collapse of electricals chain Comet.
Total sales, including new stores, were up 2% compared with 2.5% in July last year, while the three-month rolling average shows growth of like-for-like non-food sales outpacing food sales for the first time.
So-called big-ticket items such as furniture and household appliances continue to struggle to sell with growth being promotion-driven.
Online, mail-order and phone sales of non-food items show stronger growth, up 15.6% against growth of 9.6% last year.
Retailers suffered a "lacklustre" July as expectations of an Olympic boost appear to be "wide of the mark", a leading survey shows.
Sales values edged 0.1% higher on a like-for-like basis in July, compared with a 0.6% rise in the same month last year, the British Retail Consortium (BRC) and KPMG research said.
Warm weather in the final week and a slight boost from Olympic fever helped support food and drink sales but it was not enough to offset the impact of lower prices and wet weather earlier in the month.
The British Retail Consortium (BRC) Director General Stephen Robertson, has said that although the build up to the Queen's Diamond Jubilee was a useful boost to the retail figures, it was the sun that sent the shoppers to the high street.
He said: “The seemingly shy sunshine, hardly seen since March, had created pent-up demand for summer goods which was finally unleashed. Modest sales of coats and carpets gave way to much better sales of T-shirts and barbecues as interest finally turned outdoors."
The BRC’s own figures, published two weeks ago, showed year-on-year growth of 3.4 per cent for May 2012.
Howard Archer, chief UK and European economist at IHS Global Insight, has said a decent bounce back in retail sales would mean the economy "may still have a fighting chance" of avoiding further economic contraction in the second quarter.
According to official figures, total retail sales volumes plunged by a worse-than-expected 2.3% in April as the record rainfall dampened demand for clothing, although this was distorted by a record plunge in petrol and diesel sales.
A BRC survey also showed that Britain's high streets witnessed the worst decline in shopper numbers since November 2009 in April.