The number of jobs in the retail sector suffered its biggest annual fall for two years in the three months to September, and pre-Christmas hiring is likely to prove muted, a survey showed on Thursday.

Employment dropped by 0.8 percent compared with the same quarter a year earlier, driven by non-food retailers, according to the poll by the British Retail Consortium and business law firm Bond Pearce.

Fifty-four percent of firms in the sample, which represents over a million employees, intend to hire more staff in the run-up to the busy Christmas period, versus the 61 percent who wanted to do so a year ago. Eight percent aim to cut jobs.

Retailers are being battered by the same economic conditions that have led to the highest unemployment rate for 17 years, Christina Tolvas-Vincent, head of retail employment law at Bond Pearce, said in a statement.

Seasonal hiring from those parts of retailing that gain significantly from Christmas may provide some respite, but this won't change the underlying weakness in the retail labour market, she added.

Redundancy rates were low but many retailers were not filling all vacancies. In September alone, employment declined by an annual 3.1 percent after two months of feeble growth.

It is possible that retailers are holding back seasonal employment until nearer Christmas compared with last year. This would explain a sharp fall this September as annual comparatives would prove tough, the report said.

Food retailers bucked the trend, boosting the number of jobs in the third quarter, albeit at the slowest pace since annual comparisons began in October 2009.

Rising prices, muted wage growth and government austerity measures have forced Britons to rein in spending, especially on non-essential goods.

Economists expect the retail sector to remain under pressure for the rest of this year, not least from high inflation. Inflation hit a three-year high in September at 5.2 percent, the second-highest annual rate in the European Union.

(Reporting by Olesya Dmitracova; editing by Stephen Nisbet)