The British Retail Consortium's Retail Sales Monitor has reported a 4.1% lift in December sales, and a rise of 2.2% on a like-for-like basis.
The relatively strong performance in December represents the third-highest month for UK retail sales in 2011, behind April and January.
Growth has been attributed to a number of factors, including comparisons with a relatively weak December 2010, when snow kept people indoors and sales fell 0.3%.
Other contributing factors to high sales were Christmas Day falling on a Sunday, longer opening hours and the presence of early, heavy discounting.
By sector, food sales were particularly strong after two weaker months. Shoppers sought out special offers and discounts resulting in value ranges selling well, as did wines (Champagne), confectionery and party foods.
Non-food non-store, which encompasses online, mail order and phone sales, picked up sharply from November's low, with sales up 18.5% year on year.
Stephen Robertson, director general of the BRC, said: "A better than hoped-for December closed a relentlessly tough year for retailers, but these figures hinged on a dazzling last pre-Christmas week and were boosted by some major one-off factors. We're not witnessing any fundamental change in customers' circumstances.
"The comparison is with severe snow disruption a year ago. Discounting was deeper and started earlier, and the vital Saturday Christmas Eve added another big trading day to the final run-up."
Robertson tempered the December sales figures with warnings of another tough year ahead and a reminder that 2011 proved to be "pretty miserable" for retailers, with minimal like-for-like growth of 0.1%.
He said: "For many customers, economic reality has bitten again since the New Year and, with consumer confidence returning to levels last seen during the recession, 2012 is expected to be an equally challenging year."
Clothing and footwear were among the key categories to have sold well in December, with discounts helping consumers finally upgrade winter wardrobes. Menswear outperformed women's, both as gifts and clearance purchases of coats and suits.
However, Helen Dickinson, head of retail at KPMG, noted that although last month's results were positive, "no one expects this level of demand to be indicative of the year ahead".
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|Retail Sales Value: % change year on year|
Source: British Retail Consortium, 10 January 2012