Irish retail sales continued to disappoint during the first quarter (Q1) of 2012, according to retail industry group Retail Excellence Ireland (REI).

The review of retail figures showed that sales have now been declining in the retail sector for 36 months in a row.

REI’s latest data revealed that sales per square foot in the first quarter of the year decreased to €122.16 from €133.78 in the last quarter of 2011.

January sales were almost 5% below the same time in last year, but there were encouraging signs in March, with sales rising by 0.7%.

Hot beverages sector was among the best performing sectors, recording a 1.36% increase in the first three months of 2012, compared to year over period.

The worst performing sectors were furniture and flooring with sales down almost 10% in the Q1 of 2012, compared to Q1 of 2011.

Other weak sectors in the quarter included ladies fashion and menswear, down 4.04% and 4.22%, respectively.

In the first quarter, jewellery and gifts, and homeware were also weaker with like-for-like sales decreasing 3.6% and 3.9%, respectively.

The industry group said the figures show that while consumers were active, they were cautious.

REI chief executive David Fitzsimons said March 2012 returned to like-for-like growth helped by a spell of good weather.

"The big ticket discretionary sectors remain in greatest distress,” Fitzsimons said.

”The 2% VAT increase to 23% has made retailing difficult and makes it hard to achieve last year’s targets.

"Constant negative media commentary surronding household charges and water charges is worsening consumer sentiment."

Fitzsimons added that while both the premium and value ends of the market are performing reasonably, the middle market remains highly competitive with further failure anticipated.

Ecco Footwear retail head Keith Rogers told Independent that March had a difficult start for retailers but finished strongly with high demand for summer footwear due to the rising temperatures.

"All footwear retailers are currently doing a sun dance to ensure a good second quarter with strong sandal and other summer product sales before we get to the sale period in June," Rogers said.