A sharp fall in seasonally adjusted retail sales between December and January could reflect skilful management by some shopkeepers as well as caution on the part of shoppers who had spent freely in the run-up to Christmas.
The volume of retail sales fell by 1.3 per cent last month, National Statistics reported yesterday.
This was the first monthly decline since last July and the biggest fall since the disastrous Christmas of December, 2004.
Even so, the month's total was still 1.3 per cent higher than in January, 2005. The latest three months was 1.3 per cent ahead of August/October and 2.6 per cent higher year on year, NS added.
Within these overall numbers, some retailers are having a very hard time.
Kingfisher, owner of the B&Q DIY chain, reported that its like-for-like sales fell by nine per cent in the 13 weeks to January 28. That followed a 8.4 per cent decline in the third quarter of last year and one of seven per cent in the the first half of 2005.
NS said that stores selling household goods suffered worst in January with sales down by three per cent after an unusually strong December.
Internet retailers did so well that "non-store" achieved its biggest three-monthly increase since July, 2004.
Richard Lowe at Barclays business banking said: "On the ground we are seeing that retailers have become more astute and bought more smartly in the run-up to Christmas with the result that they have not been left with huge overhangs of stock.
"Margins have consequently held up better. In short, retailers have become more realistic in their expectations."
But Kingfisher's chief executive, Gerry Murphy, described the home improvement market as depressed and said there was unlikely to be an immediate recovery.
"We are not calling the turn any time soon," he said.
Mr Murphy has already cut 400 head office jobs, closed 22 B&Q stores and cut prices for more than 2,500 basic products. But yesterday he said he did not envisage any more rationalisation.
City economists responded with mixed reactions. Some thought January's fall in retail sales overall would itself persuade some members of the Bank of England's Monetary Policy Committee to vote for an interest rate cut next month - even though Wednesday's Inflation Report from the Bank indicated no change as the most likely outlook for some time. But HSBC's economist John Butler said overall sales growth of 1.3 per cent on a three-monthly comparison offered some comfort to retailers.
"The importance of this number is that it re-introduces a seed of doubt about whether the consumer has really passed the worst - particularly as so many households, unusually, failed to respond to discounting on such a heavy scale."