Figures released by the British Retail Consortium and KPMG in their retail sales monitor reveal that UK retail sales were down 1.7% on a like-for-like basis from March 2013, when they had increased 1.9% on the preceding year.
On a total basis, sales were down 0.3%, against a 3.7% increase in March 2013.
The 3-month average total growth was 2.1%, just below the 12-month trend of 2.4%. A clearer underlying picture should appear in April, when the Easter distortion is reversed.
The Food and Home categories, the most affected by the Easter distortion, showed a decline, while the fashion categories showed record growth, flattered by a low comparable period.
Online sales of non-food products in the UK grew 12.8% in March versus a year earlier. The online penetration rate achieved 17.3% in March. Excluding online sales, total Non-food sales would have shown a decline in March.
Helen Dickinson, Director General, British Retail Consortium, said: "These sales figures are stronger than might have been expected given the fact that Easter has fallen so late this year.
"Fashion has performed particularly well. Retailers have worked hard to create popular new collections, and have been rewarded with strong demand for women's clothing and footwear in particular. This improves on the slow start to the season last year when shoppers were more reluctant to spruce up their wardrobes.
"Unsurprisingly compared to last year, categories that perform strongly over the extended Easter break have seen lower sales. Household accessories and furniture are often key purchases over the holiday, and have seen a decline. With the later school holidays, the same has been the case for children's clothing. Retailers will be looking forward to April's results to see how this balances out over the period."