Sales value rose by just 1.2% compared with January 2009 and there was a 0.7% fall on a like-for-like basis.
Food and drink retailers fared better than most however, with a 4.3% increase for the quarter from November to January and a 2.5% like-for-like rise.
The cold weather was blamed by the BRC for the sluggish new year sales.
Director general Stephen Robertson said: “This is the worst January sales growth in the 15 years we’ve been running the survey.
“The VAT change bought some sales forward to December but customers are becoming cautious again in the face of economic and political uncertainty.
“Retailers will be hoping these results are a snow induced-blip rather than an indication of further difficulties.”