Food volumes were down 2.2% in February compared to the equivalent month in 2010, figures from the Office for National Statistics show.

Overall sales on the high street were down 0.8% last month – a bigger fall than the 0.6% widely expected.

"Last week we discovered that unemployment is continuing to rise and this week we're told inflation has hit 4.4%,” Gemma Lovelock of TLC Marketing Worldwide “Neither trend looks set to reverse in the short-term.

"For retailers, the problem is twofold. Not only are people less inclined to spend due to financial uncertainty and job concerns, but they have less money to spend. With inflation at current levels, the UK's consumers have effectively taken a pay cut.

"Everything from food on the shelves to clothes on the rack is more expensive. We are spending on the basics, but discretionary spend has really been cut back.”

Scott Green of discount vouchers website CouponCroc.co.uk called the figures a “body blow” for retailers.

"A recent poll we carried out showed that 35% of Brits have cut back on food in a last ditch bid to save money, with 47% striking meat off shopping lists and 12% claiming they are now buying fewer fruit and vegetables.”

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