New figures from the Central Statistics Office show that the volume of retail sales fell by 1.9% in March from February.

The CSO said retail sales were down 3.6% last month compared to the same time the previous year - the sharpest annualised fall in nine months.

When car sales are excluded from the figures, retail sales fell by 1.8% on a monthly basis and by 1.6% on an annual basis.

Breaking down the figures, they show that the biggest fall in retail sales was seen in the books, newspapers and stationary sector, which dropped by 8.5% last month. Sales of hardware, paints and glass decreased by 5.6%.

March saw sales increase in department stores, which rose 2.3%, while sales in food, beverages and tobacco-specialised stores grew by 1.6%.

The CSO also said today that the value of retail sales fell by 1.9% in March on a monthly basis and by 4.1% on an annual basis. When car sales are excluded, there was a monthly decrease of 1.8% in the value of retail sales and an annual fall of 1.7%.

Retail Ireland, the IBEC group that represents the retail sector, described today's figures as ''shockingly poor''.

"Every category of store recorded a fall, except department stores, specialist food stores and electrical outlets. Hardware, clothing and book sales fared particularly badly. Supermarkets, pharmacies and petrol retailers also all saw a drop in sales,''' commented Retail Ireland Director Stephen Lynam.

He said that the continued gloom in the sector must be tackled and retail put on a sustainable path to recovery.

''The imminent establishment of inter-departmental group on retail, announced as part of the Action Plan for Jobs, must come up with proposals to stimulate the domestic economy. Consumers need hope and a reason to start spending," he said.

ISME said the retail figures for March were disappointing. ISME's chief executive Mark Fielding said that consumers continue to save and reduce their debt in the fear of further austerity measures and job losses, while the Government fails to show economic leadership.

''There is no doubt that without a strategic intervention, up to 40,000 jobs will be lost in the sector, as confirmed by the most recent ISME Business Trends Survey, where a net 5% of retail SMEs expected to reduce employment in the next 12 months,'' he cautioned.