UK retail sales showed an improved like-for-like gain during December, but clothing sales took a downturn, according to the latest report from the British Retail Consortium.

December same-store sales were up 2.6% from December 2004, when sales dropped 0.4%. The gain was the largest since the 3.7% gain in May 2004, and the best December since 2001. 

The three-month trend rate of growth improved in December to 0.2% from -0.1% in November for like-for-like sales, and to 4.1% from 3.8% for total sales. Same-store sales in 2005 averaged a 0.4% fall, against a 1.7% gain in 2004.

Shoppers remained very value-conscious and took advantage of the widespread promotions and sales discounts, BRC said.
      
Overall clothing sales flagged compared to December's, particularly within the women's and children's wear sectors, which both showed small declines despite picking up markedly in the week before Christmas.

Promotions and one-day sales supported trade but sales fell back again after a good start to the post-Christmas clearance sales.

Outerwear, knitwear, hats, gloves and scarves did well. Fashion lingerie and cashmere were popular gifts and evening dresses and party wear also had a seasonal boost.

Casual jackets, trousers and denim - particularly skinny jeans - did well for some, while others saw demand for smarter styles. Men's wear held up well, with suits helped by promotions but casual jackets and trousers were also good for some.

Children's wear trading was often better for boys' lines than girls'.          

On the whole, footwear sales fell back again, despite picking up pre-Christmas, though were not as bad as in October and September.

Women's footwear was generally weaker than men's, with boots still doing well for some retailers, but for others, shoes led the way. Formal courts and occasion shoes tended to be preferred to casual ranges, while for men, casuals were more popular.

Children's shoes held up better early in the month but were fairly flat overall, despite some upturn in school shoes end-month.

Department stores recorded reasonably good trade on the whole, boosted by Christmas demand and special sales days. Wintry weather helped clothing and footwear sales.

Mail order sales showed some improvement, but these were often aided by discounts and promotions, which hit margins. Mail order clothing sales were disappointing.

BRC director general Kevin Hawkins commented: "These are significantly better results than most forecasters were expecting, although the BRC sales figures for October and November indicated a slight improvement in consumer spending.
 
"Underlying conditions, however, are still very tough and the first quarter of 2006 looks challenging, despite being up against weak comparatives in 2005."

Helen Dickinson, head of retail at financial services company KPMG, said: "The poor expectations in the lead up to Christmas released retailers from the burden of expectation which badly blighted Christmas 2004.

"This meant that retailers' plans and strategies in the run-up to Christmas 2005 were adjusted accordingly. For example, more of the discounting activity was targeted promotions on specific lines to drive footfall rather than blanket sales to shift surplus stock."