On a total basis, sales were 1.1% higher, against a 4.5% increase in February 2010, the BRC-KPMG Retail Sales Monitor shows.
Food and drink sales picked up after a weaker January but the BRC said consumers' underlying uncertainty about jobs and incomes was evident.
Internet and mail order growth fell in February, to 10.4% higher than a year ago, after a rise of 12.3% in January. It was the smallest increase since August 2009.
BRC director general Stephen Robertson said: "February's sales were weak. Other than the negative figures last April (caused by the year-to-year movement of Easter), this February's 1.1 per cent total sales growth is the poorest since May 2009 – even poorer when the impact of the VAT rise on inflation is taken into account.
"After the big boost to January's figures from one-off factors, including a strong final burst of pre-VAT rise spending, February's figures are a return to a more realistic picture of how things are for customers and retailers.”
Helen Dickinson, head of retail at KPMG, said: "There is inflation in these numbers, so volumes are lower and with people making less shopping trips, fewer retailers are benefitting from the limited spending capacity available.
“Price, but more importantly value, has become an even higher decision-making criteria.
“Consumers are readjusting their spending habits to reflect the reduced disposable income in their pockets and the key question for retailers is whether they have finished yet."