British retailers have suffered their worst Christmas in 10 years with like-for-like sales lower than in 2003, a survey has said.
A last minute rush before Christmas did not save many retailers
Like-for-like sales in December, which exclude new stores, were down 0.4% on a year ago, a survey by the British Retail Consortium (BRC) and KPMG found.
Only sales of food and drink showed real growth, the study said.
Leading High Street names such as Marks & Spencer and Woolworths have reported disappointing festive sales.
M&S reported a fall in sales over the crucial Christmas trading period and warned profits would fall short of expectations, as discounting was needed to shift unsold stock.
Woolworths said like-for-like sales growth was flat in the four weeks to 1 January compared with a year ago, a result it described as "disappointing".
Clothing retailer Next, whose post-Christmas sale is usually an eagerly-awaited event, also said the end-of-year clearance sale had proved disappointing.
The firm admitted that festive sales were "below where we would expect a normal Christmas to be".
Others reporting lacklustre seasonal sales were book chain Ottakar's, sports retailers JJB Sports, and Iceland-to-Booker group Big Food.
Supermarket chain Morrisons reported flat Christmas sales, with like-for-like sales up by just 0.1% in the six weeks to 9 January.
However retailers reporting a positive seasonal period were supermarket group Waitrose, wine and champagne seller Majestic Wines, and discount clothing retailer Matalan.
'Lack of confidence'
Trading was sluggish for most of the month and only picked up in the last few days before Christmas, the BRC said.
While total sales were 2.5% higher than in December 2003, like-for-like sales - the industry's most closely watched benchmark - declined.
"These figures represent the worst Christmas for retailers in the last decade," said BRC chief executive Kevin Hawkins.
"The lack of consumer confidence created by uncertainty over the economy and housing market dominated December and remains a strong concern for the sector as it shows no sign of abating in the immediate future."
Sales were weak across the board with consumers reluctant to commit themselves to high value purchases.
Clothing and furniture retailers particularly suffered, while sales of CDs and DVDs were not as strong as expected.
Experts warned of tough times ahead for many retailers in 2005.
"The Christmas sales figures are disappointing for many retailers but do not show the abysmal performance anticipated by some in the run-up to Christmas," said Helen Dickinson, head of retail at KPMG.
"It has been a particularly tough time for the home and furniture sectors and this shows no sign of abating in the near future."