The number of people employed in the retail industry continued to fall in the first quarter of the year, as rising employment costs kept margins under pressure, new figures from the British Retail Consortium (BRC) show.

The total number employed was down 2.5%, while total hours were also down 3.2%, with the majority of retailers reporting a reduction in both hours and employment.

Growth in store sales during Q1 also declined by 3.0% and store numbers fell by 2.3%.

Looking to the year ahead, 12.5% of survey respondents said they planned to reduce staff levels - a slight improvement on 14% a year ago.

A further 12.5% said they would be increasing staff levels, while 75% said they planned to keep staffing levels the same.

BRC chief executive Helen Dickinson urged the government to reform the current business rates system, which was placing “a disproportionate burden on retailers, who pay 25% of the total rates bill despite making up a much smaller proportion of the economy”.

 “Our latest employment figures show how the retail industry is going through a continued period of significant transition,” she added.

“The expected further rises in business rates and employment costs are contributing to the pressure on retailers to close stores and reduce job numbers further.

“Despite this, the future for retail is a positive one. Retailers are investing in technology and innovation which are transforming the retail experience for customers, and the industry has a vision for better retail jobs in the future that will improve productivity and provide quality employment opportunities for people across the UK.”