Retailers endured a "worse than expected" Christmas period as figures yesterday showed sales in December grew at their weakest rate for three years.

The British Retail Consortium said like-for-like UK sales rose 0.3 per cent last month, compared to 2.5 per cent in December 2006 and 2.6 per cent the year before. Analysts had expected like-for-like sales to be ahead one per cent.

Last month's rise was also the weakest of any month since March 2006, the consortium warned, with the latest three-monthly trend also down.

BRC director general Kevin Hawkins said the figure heralded a "very challenging" start to the year for stores, and called on the Bank of England to cut interest rates from 5.5 per cent this week to boost high street spending.

He said: "This result is somewhat worse than we expected and points to a very challenging first half for 2008."

The sluggish December echoes comments from major retailers, including Next which spoke of "difficult" trading and also warned its UK stores probably would not return to like-for-like sales growth this year.