A staggering 46% of small shop owners have reported a downturn in sales over the past three months.

Just 18% claimed their sales had increased in the past quarter, while 36% said they had stayed the same, a survey by the Association of Convenience Stores found. However, there were signs of optimism. Some 47% said they expected their sales to increase in 2012.

The survey, The Voice of Local Shops Report, carried out by the ACS to provide insight into the attitudes of independent c-store retailers, also found retailers were more concerned about wider economic issues than competition from the multiples.

A whopping 88% of the 201 retailers surveyed said the biggest obstacle to the success of their business in the year ahead was the economy, while 71% said competition in the market. Other concerns included business rates (37%), cashflow (34%), tax (28%) and recruiting more staff (19%).

Few were planning significant investment. Just 3% said they planned to buy a new store over the next 12 months, and 13% planned to increase employment. And 64% said they had no plans to invest in their business at all in the next year.

“There is no doubt that times are tough for independents, and they approach the year ahead with caution,” said ACS CEO James Lowman. “Nonetheless there is a strong undercurrent of optimism that is typical of a resilient sector.”

The ACS said the report would be updated over the course of the year to provide a bellwether of confidence and to track and identify trends in core areas such as job creation and crime.

Last month, Kantar Worldpanel revealed symbols and indies’ sales rose by just 0.7% in the 12 weeks to 22 January, well below the multiples, which grew at 4.3% over the same period.