The stores sector suffered a like-for-like sales decline of 0.3% during the crucial month of December as snow hit sales.

Total sales rose 1.5% during the month, the BRC-KPMG Retail Sales Monitor showed. Non-food categories, especially big-ticket items, were undermined by jittery consumer confidence as well as icy weather.

On a three-month basis, food sales were up 4.4% in total while non-food only inched ahead 0.6% giving an overall rise of 2.2%.

Food like-for-likes rose 2.1% over three months while non-food was down 0.8% giving an overall change of 0.4%.

Internet, mail order and phone sales were up 18% year-on-year.

BRC director general Stephen Robertson said: “The unusually early winter made a difficult Christmas worse.

“Catch-up shopping gave a big boost to the week before Christmas and the post-Christmas clearances were strong for non-food retailing but neither was enough to replace every sale lost earlier in the month.

“This is no return to the dire picture of two years ago, but the message for the Chancellor is: concentrate on delivering growth and leave any new burdens out of your march Budget.”