Figures from the British Retail Consortium showed 1.7 percent like-for-like growth for December 2002.
This is the worst result since the autumn of 2000 and confirms that consumers' willingness to shop has slowed since the spring. Last month, the BRC recorded like-for-like growth of 2 percent, in itself well down on the 4.8 percent recorded in August and the 4 percent in June.
The BRC also said December total sales rose by 4.1 pct compared with a year earlier, while the three-month trend rates of growth decreased from 3.1 percent in November to 2.5 percent in December for like-for-like sales and from 6.1 percent to 5.4 percent for total sales.
The figures come in the wake of a shock profits warning from electronics retailer Dixons Group PLC.
"Overall, the Christmas sales figures were slightly disappointing," said Bill Moyes, director general of the BRC.
"Sales are slowing, but at a much slower rate than over the last two years."
Moyes said consumers remain willing to spend but their "pursuit of value" means static prices and tight margins for retailers.
However, Amanda Aldridge, head of retail at KPMG, which co-authors the BRC survey, said the figures show that reports of a disastrous Christmas have been "grossly exaggerated".
She said the weekly profile for the month confirms that consumers left the bulk of their spending until the last few days, with the third week of December being particularly weak.
"The sales have got off to a good start but consumers should not expect the big bargains to be there for long as most retailers' stock management has improved to the point where massive overstocking is a thing of the past," she said.
Over in the US, December retail sales were also slow. Bike trade retail consultant Jay Townley of Jay Townley & Associates told BikeBiz.co.uk that there are two big questions that will impact on retail sales in the first quarter of 2003:
"Will the US take military action against Iraq?Will the US economy pull out of its 'going no-where slowly' mode and move to a sustained recovery?
"While no one knows for sure, relative to the first question, war now seems imminent, but that could change quickly. The answer to the second question depends on whether the US actually goes to war with Iraq.
"A shakeout in the retail sector is coming in 2003 that will force store closings across the country. Not effected by the shakeout, Wal-Mart and Target are still growing in the current slow-growth economy, but so are specialty retailers. Specialty bicycle retail store locations are down only 3 percent December 2002 compared to December 2001.
"Caution because of pervasive uncertainty driven by the slow economy, world events and the spectre of war are the overriding themes. However, within this theme of caution there are plenty of opportunities for the US specialty bicycle retail channel of trade:
"Population shifts are reshaping the fundamental matrix of the US and will
bring new spending patterns.
"In 2003 it is likely to be the over-50 baby boomers that keep the economy afloat. The advertising industry will finally concede that the youth market does not rule, as 'fiftysomethings' unload kids and mortgages and begin spending disposable income.
"We are on the verge of a huge breakthrough in women's specific sport equipment, apparel and accessories."
For a very detailed precis of US economic conditions, including bike trade specific conditons, download the PDF below. This is the November NBDA RDC Analysis.
There's an excellent section on why the bike trade should not focus exclusively on core consumers (37-year old, white males, says the report).