LONDON British retailers suffered from lacklustre sales last month, as a tough economy limited consumer spending in the run-up to Christmas when many stores make most of their profits, a leading trade body said on Tuesday.
The British Retail Consortium said the total value of goods sold was up just 1.5 percent from December 2011, while on a like-for-like basis which excludes new floorspace sales were only 0.3 percent higher.
With annual consumer price inflation currently running at 2.7 percent, this suggests that stores sold less in real terms, increasing the chance that Britain's economy slipped back into contraction in the last three months of 2012.
"This rather underwhelming result brings a year of minimal sales growth to a close," said Helen Dickinson, the BRC's new director general.
So far, 2013 has showed few signs of being any better than 2012, and a greater number of stores were at risk of closure, she added.
"Retailers will be hoping that a continuing boost from post-Christmas sales events strengthens January's figures, but unfortunately there are few signs that their sense of 'running fast to stand still' is likely to ease off any time soon."
The BRC figures contrast with a more upbeat survey from the British Chambers of Commerce for the economy as a whole, also released on Tuesday, which showed a broad rise in sentiment across businesses in the last three months of 2012.
According to the BRC, online sales put in the strongest performance, showing annual growth of almost 18 percent, as one of the wettest Decembers on record kept shoppers at home.
Overall, December's figures marked a slowdown both from November, when sales grew 1.8 percent in total and 0.4 on a like-for-like basis, and from December 2011, when there was 4.1 percent total sales growth.
The rise in December 2011 in part represented a rebound from December 2010, when heavy snow depressed sales.
British retailers themselves have reported mixed fortunes so far, with upmarket department stores John Lewis and House of Fraser posting solid sales growth, while supermarket chain Wm Morrison (MRW.L) - which lacks an online operation - reported a fall in underlying sales.
(Reporting by David Milliken, additional reporting by Lawrence Morris; Editing by Toby Chopra)