Festive retail growth slower than in 2004

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And 2005 as a whole saw the lowest growth in the sector for 20 years, said Verdict's managing director, Richard Hyman.

The estimates will dent hopes that the January sales will help to rescue a quiet run-up to Christmas.

The market analyst Footfall, which counts the number of shoppers passing through shops, reported an 8 per cent increase in the two days after Christmas compared with the same period a year earlier. SPSL, another retail information group, reported that almost a fifth more shoppers were out in force on Boxing Day compared with the previous year.

Shares in Marks & Spencer broke through the 500p mark for the first time in over six years on hopes that retailers would enjoy a better Christmas.

But Mr Hyman said that sales for last month would have a total value only 2.5 per cent higher than those in December 2004, which were 3.3 per cent higher than in December 2003.

But, he said: "Retailers will not be as damaged this year because most have learnt the harsh lesson from last year and stocked accordingly. There is less stock to mark down in the post-Christmas sales."

Mr Hyman said that total sales for 2005 were up a paltry 1.9 per cent compared with 2004, half the growth rate Verdict recorded for the previous year.