Fears that retailers are heading for a gloomy Christmas have risen following the latest sales survey from the British Retail Consortium (BRC).
More people are doing their Christmas shopping online
UK High Street sales fell 0.2% last month on a like-for-like basis, which strips out the effect of new stores, compared with November 2003.
But another survey has shown that shoppers may be choosing to stay at home and shop on the internet instead.
Online spending will rise by 63% this Christmas, an internet retail body said
According to Interactive Media in Retail Group (IMRG), online shopping is growing 26 times faster than on the High Street, and nearly 50% of the population are making purchases through the net.
Consumers are motivated by the convenience of the internet, IMRG said, the wider choice available and cheaper deals on offer.
"You can shop online whenever it suits you, without having to battle with traffic and crowds," the IMRG said.
However, the BRC said its survey had found that fundamental economics, such as higher interest rates, had driven consumers away from shopping malls.
BRC director Kevin Hawkins added shops had become used to most festive sales taking place later in December, saying that talk of "panic sales" was premature.
"Retailers will now wait to see if the mood improves and they can catch up lost ground during December," Mr Hawkins said.
The BRC said the Christmas trading period had started slowly, with consumers still cautious about making big-ticket purchases.
But the figures showed clothing sales, led by womenswear, had grown, and footwear and new DVD releases were also faring well.
Retailers are hoping for a last-minute rush
The data was distorted by special discount days held during the month by several stores, the BRC said.
Like-for-like sales in the three months to November were up 0.8% on a year ago, but down from the 1.1% rise seen in the August to October period.
Analysts Capital Economics said the BRC survey was consistent with reports that sluggish sales growth on the High Street had led to pre-Christmas discounting, but warned it was too soon to conclude the festive season would prove a flop.
"We are wary of taking the weakness of the survey as a sign that the Christmas period as a whole will be a write-off for retailers," said Vicky Redwood, UK economist at Capital Economics.
On the internet, IMRG said public confidence about shopping online had been boosted by the 'Internet Shopping Is Safe' (ISIS) campaign, an accreditation scheme adopted by more and more retailers.
An ISIS trust mark on a website is meant to indicate that the retailer's service is safe and reliable.
ISIS-accredited merchants now account for roughly two thirds of all UK online retailers, IMRG said.
Twenty-one million Britons now shop online and 85% of them will ordering Christmas presents on the internet, each spending an average of £220.
Christmas shopping online will be equivalent to the sales of 19 Bluewater Shopping Centres this year, according to IMRG.