Christmas is still "all to play for" after the high street suffered disappointing November trading, the British Retail Consortium (BRC) said.
Like-for-like sales grew 1.8% last month compared with a dire November 2008, when they were down 2.6% as the financial crisis decimated consumer confidence.
But the figure marks a retreat from the 3.8% gain seen in October - the best for the month since 2002 - amid a further decline in food inflation.
With only 16 shopping days left to Christmas, BRC director general Stephen Robertson said consumer confidence is "fragile and has taken a turn for the worse".
"We're the only major economy still in recession. Uncertainty over jobs and future tax increases and Government spending cuts is making customers more cautious," he said. "Retailers are hopeful of a better Christmas than last year's dire performance, but it's still all to play for."
November sales were expected to have been stronger because of the comparison to the second worst month in 2008.
But Mr Robertson said the figure was not as bad as it first appeared, as a sharp decline in food inflation is behind much of the drag on sales.
The unseasonably mild weather had a significant effect on shoppers' buying habits.
Clothing fell back below their already weak levels last year despite discounting and some special sales days.
Womenswear was slightly down on the previous November and menswear suffered its worst year-on-year fall since May 2008 as warmer weather hit demand for winter coats and knitwear.