After a slow autumn, retailers saw some relief with annual growth in sales of 3.4 per cent on a like-for-like basis in December. Total sales increased by 5.5 per cent year-on-year - the strongest growth since May 2000. However, the rise in sales was confined to the last two weeks of the month when there was one more trading day this year than last.

The three-month trend rates of growth showed little variance from last month, staying at 4.7 per cent for total sales, and improving from 2.2 per cent to 2.4 per cent for like-for-like sales.

Retailers reported that Christmas shopping really got under way from about 21 December, providing a test of nerve for them. A good start to the sales after Christmas was almost immediately disrupted by snow. London stores continued to be disadvantaged in the run up to Christmas by the unreliability of the rail service.

December proved to be a better month for footwear, with strong sales of ladies' boots continuing for retailers who had sufficient stock. Ladies' party shoes also sold well, as did designer label footwear. Strong demand for ladies' footwear encouraged some retailers to start their end-of-year sales later than last year.

Performance in men's formal footwear was relatively flat, but casual styles sold better. Children's footwear sales were disappointing through most of December, but volumes picked up in the sales. Sports shoes performed well in men's, women's and children's.

Just as retailers had marked down prices on coats and knitwear for the end-of-year sales, the cold weather and snow arrived. This ensured high levels of demand from those who had got to the shops, but obviously at reduced margins.

Despite this, December was generally a better month than November, and few retailers were forced to begin their sales before Christmas. Lingerie and nightwear sold well ahead of Christmas, and in menswear, gloves, scarves, shirts, ties and socks. Childrenswear and babywear sold well before Christmas and in the sales. Leather continued to be popular for men's and women's casual wear. Men's formal wear generally underperformed casualwear.

Department stores mostly maintained full price up to Christmas Eve, despite a slow start to December. Top label fashion concessions such as Armani, Boss, Chanel and Burberry saw strong sales. London stores suffered from the rail chaos however, with customers who would normally have come into the West End to do their Christmas shopping, choosing not to risk the rail journey.

After a disappointing start to December, the busiest days were Thursday 21 and Friday 22 December. Saturday 23 and Christmas Eve were not as busy as expected.

Mail order saw a second consecutive month of improvement after a difficult Autumn. Customers made good use of extended credit offers, particularly to buy big ticket items such as electrical goods and furniture. Sales of ladieswear were good up until Christmas, but menswear continued to underperform.

From Peter Embling, Shoestyle