Most shopkeepers made a muted start to their pre-Christmas selling season and expect little relief from the January sales, to judge from the CBI's latest distributive trades survey conducted between November 29 and December 12.
The CBI said that although 42 per cent of retailers reported better sales than in the same weeks last year, 33 per cent suffered a setback.
The resulting balance of eight per cent was down from one of 13 per cent last month and the weakest outcome since November, 2006.
Retailers expecting their sales to be down year on year in January outnumber those hoping for an increase by five per cent, the first negative showing April last year.
An adverse balance of minus five per cent described their sales as poor for the time of year, a pessimism which deepens to minus 16 per cent contemplating prospects for next month.
Motor traders have suffered a sharp change in their fortunes since a balance of 33 per cent reported higher year-on-year sales in October. This month that is replaced by minus 58 per cent, with sharp setbacks in sales of vehicles and parts and accessories.
"We are coming to the end of what has been a successful year for many on the high street," said John Longworth, chairman of the CBI's distributive trades panel and an executive director of Asda.
"Sales growth in the first part of December seems relatively more disappointing when compared with last year's pre-Christmas period and the first half of 2007.
"Retailers will be hoping that shoppers plan to fill their Christmas stockings late, especially as Christmas falls after the week-end this year. But the outlook for January does not fill them with cheer as they expect a slight fall in sales.
"Maintaining consumer confidence is vital, at a time when the extent to which tighter borrowing and the impact of the credit crunch on people's pockets is still not fully known. Consumer spending will certainly slow next year, but the overall economy will stay in reasonable shape."
Supermarkets, delicatessen and other specialist food shops all bucked this month's weaker sales trend. So, to a lesser extent, did chemists and "other retailers" including department stores.
The sharpest change was in the fortunes of footwear and leather shops, where a strong run all this year came to an abrupt end.
Those reporting lower sales outnumbered those with an improvement by 87 per cent of the sample, down from a positive balance of 54 per cent in both October and November.
Global Insight's economist, Howard Archer, noted: "Retailers will be desperately hoping that a lot of consumers have left their shopping to the last minute to take advantage of any late discounts and promotions.
"The CBI survey also highlights why many retailers have felt the need to make late offers to attract shoppers."