Pub chain JD Wetherspoon blamed cheap supermarket prices for flat bar sales over Christmas and New Year.
The pub chain said like-for-like sales rose 2.8 per cent in the 12 weeks to January 18, well below the 6.3 per cent posted in its first quarter.
Underlying sales growth dropped to two per cent in December and it slowed further over the past two weeks.
Wetherspoon blamed much cheaper drink prices in supermarkets, which pay no VAT on food allowing them to subsidise alcohol prices, while pubs pay 20 per cent VAT on food.
Chairman Tim Martin said the pub industry is at a disadvantage and there is a “dire need” for the sector to campaign for equal tax treatment.
“Wetherspoon has had significantly better sales growth in the last couple of years than our main competitors, reflecting a pattern that has continued since our flotation,” he said.
“Even Wetherspoon, however, has seen flat bar sales in the last two months, when food sales have continued to rise.
“Inevitably, bar sales in the industry as a whole, especially where pubs have not benefited from Wetherspoon’s level of investment, will have fared less well.”
He said it is certain that the current wave of pub closures will accelerate when economic growth slows or reverses.
The company said it expects a “broadly satisfactory outcome” for the financial year to July, although brokers at Peel Hunt cut their pre-tax profit forecast by four per cent to £77.6m. This is below the £79.4m reported last year.
The group’s margins were also under pressure following last year’s above-inflation five per cent pay increase for staff and a rise in utility and supplier costs.
Analyst Alex Paterson, at Investec, said: “JD Wetherspoon’s interim management statement shows slowing sales, in part due to tough comparatives, and a temporary dip in margins.
“Like-for-like sales eased in December and slowed further in January.
“We are cognisant of the unequal tax regime but believe that increasing real disposable incomes will benefit pubs offering great value and high service levels.”
Analyst Greg Johnson, at Shore Capital, said: “JD Wetherspoon has issued a mellow trading update with the slowdown in like-for-like sales highlighted towards the end of the first quarter continuing into the second quarter.
“This follows on from a subdued update from Greene King recently suggesting that the improving economy is yet to feed through into the sub-sector.”