Retailers suffered a bigger-than-expected fall in sales last month after the second-coldest March on record left them unable to shift stock.
In a continuation of the rollercoaster performance seen this year, with sales rebounding 2.1% in February after a snow-hit January, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) said sales were 0.7% lower last month.
Clothing and footwear volumes were down 3.1% on a month earlier as the weather thwarted retailers' spring sales.
Sales of household goods dived 6.2% as lines such as hardware, paint and electrical appliances remained stuck on stores' shelves - the worst performance since January 2010. And department stores recorded their steepest monthly fall since February 2011 as sales plunged 4% on the month.
Economists had largely expected retailers to struggle in March after heavy snowfall returned to blanket the UK. But the figure is worse than forecasts for a decline of 0.4% and will add to fears over the health of the economy ahead of first-quarter GDP figures next Thursday. On a year earlier, retail sales were down 0.5% in March.
Food shops helped offset the dismal performance by department stores and fashion retailers in March, increasing sales 0.9% on a month earlier. Many consumers stayed at home to shop, the ONS said, with online sales accounting for 10.4% of all spending, compared with 8.8% a year earlier.
Overall, retail contributed to growth in the first three months of the year - with a 0.4% volume increase on the final three months of 2012.
That will lift hopes that the wider service sector helped the UK grow in the fourth quarter - thus avoiding another slump into recession.
James Knightley, economist at ING Bank, said retail's performance could have been "significantly worse" and offers a "little more reassurance that the UK will avoid its third technical recession in five years".
Chris Williamson at Markit said stripping out the snow effect, the figures suggest underlying consumer demand is firmer than the figures imply. He said: "The upturn in sales in the first quarter adds to evidence that the economy has returned to growth."