RETAILERS have to work harder than ever just to “keep their heads above water”, the boss of Beales has said, as figures showed the UK’s high streets suffering a record-breaking fall in sales.

Another Bournemouth retailer has said May was the “most underwhelming” month for 45 years.

Retail sales dropped 2.7 per cent in the four weeks to May 25 compared with the previous month, according to the BRC-KPMG Retail Sales Monitor – the biggest fall since records began in January 1995.

The year-on-year fall was three per cent on a like-for-like basis – the steepest drop since December 2008 – when the distortion of Easter is excluded.

Online sales growth was also slower than usual.

Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the British Retail Consortium, has warned the poor figures could lead to further store closures and job losses in a year that has already seen several retailers go into administration – including HMV and Debenhams.

Tony Brown, chief executive of Beales, said: “We were in negative territory for April but positive in May.

“There are one or two stores that are still very challenging. Bournemouth is still very challenging for us but Poole is very good.”

He said the national figures reflected the struggles of the high street, with Top Shop owner Arcadia and the Monsoon-Accessorize chain both seeking company voluntary arrangements (CVA) to deal with their debts.

Mr Brown said: “It’s a very challenging environment.

“You have to really promote and give the customer really great value to get them in, which means you’ve got to work harder than I’ve ever seen to just keep your head above water.”

Bournemouth-based Beales boosted its own performance with a “£1m price drop” sale through much of May.

“We looked at what we were discounting across the piece and that added up to £1m worth of discounts so we thought, why not just tell everybody, and it worked for us,” said Mr Brown.

“You’ve got to give the customer a good reason to come in and that’s a mix of ‘price and nice’.”

Bournemouth councillor Nigel Hedges, who runs Bourne Engraving in the town centre and sits on the board of the Bournemouth Town Centre Business Improvement District (BID), said: “May was the most underwhelming month I’ve known in 45 years.

“People are eating and drinking because that’s what they do but there just seems to be this lack of impulse. Everybody’s saying ‘Stop running up debt and buying things you don’t need’.

“Maybe people are getting the lean and green strategy, maybe they’ve got everything they need. It’s absolutely baffling.”