Strong e-commerce growth kept retailers' heads above water during a flat Christmas trading period, with sales up 17.8% compared with December 2011.
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Total UK retail sales values were up just 0.3% on a like-for-like basis from December 2011, according to a report from trading body the British Retail Consortium (BRC).
Richard Dodd, spokesman for the BRC, said retailers would have seen a decline in sales of 0.3% if it had not been for strong online growth.
“This is the first year online has made such a decisive difference to the overall sales figures,” he said.
He said online retail has become crucial in meeting the ways customers want to shop. Companies that have invested in website developments, particularly ones that can easily viewed on mobile have fared much better in the difficult trading environment, he added.
The news comes as retailers John Lewis, Debenhams and Next all posted strong online sales, growing 44%, 39% and 16.9% over the Christmas period respectively.
“The trend towards multichannel shopping continues. Debenhams' online business delivered another strong sales performance which was ahead of our own expectations, said Debenhams in a statement.
In contrast, supermarket Morrisons, which lacks an online presence, posted a decline in sales of 2.4% on a like-for-like basis over the Christmas period.
Lisa Byfield-Green, analyst at Planet Retail, said: “Online shopping has become widespread now, mainly down to the rise in mobile devices, as people have more convenient access to the internet than ever before. That is likely to accelerate much further, as people have received more tablets for Christmas this year.”
She added that the first quarter of 2013 was likely to see more casualties among high street retailers that have failed to differentiate themselves in the online space.