Retail nerves in the run-up to Christmas were fuelled after new figures showed a rush of promotions failed to revive sales last month.
The British Retail Consortium (BRC) said the mild weather and reluctance of shoppers to make big purchases caused the sector's worst sales performance since May, with like-for-like sales 1.6% lower than a year earlier.
BRC director-general Stephen Robertson said there was "a worrying lack of cheer" in the figures, which confirmed the trend that when shoppers did part with their cash it was on promotional and discounted items.
He added: "Retailers hope that customers who've managed their finances carefully in recent months will still treat themselves and their families in December, unhampered by the severe weather which disrupted shopping 12 months ago."
In contrast to last autumn's big chill, clothing retailers saw their worst year-on-year performance in more than two years after a warm November dented demand for coats and jumpers.
Some consolation could be sought from sales on handbags and jewellery due to people accessorising existing clothes rather than buying a new outfit.
Sales of electrical products were found to be often deal-driven as customers' uncertainty about job and income prospects continued to hit trade, especially for larger purchases. Many shoppers were looking for replacements rather than upgrades, the BRC added.
The weather even impacted on health and beauty sales with cough and cold and winter skincare products struggling due to the mild weather.
And toiletries and cosmetics showed their first year-on-year fall for two years.
Food sales figures suggest that people are opting to stay in more than going out to eat as premium food lines did well, including ready meals and meal deals.
There was bad news for books, with sales of paperback fiction well down on a year ago, thought to be hit by consumer caution and the growth in e-books.
Internet, mail order and phone sales on non-food products also fell back in November.