By both measures, the month of January saw the best performance since May, when warm weather had boosted sales.
Non-food sales remained down on a year ago, though by less than in December. It is thought that sales were driven by widespread discounting in clearance sales.
After a good start to the month, sales growth then weakened as clearances ended. Shoppers took advantage of good deals, but it has been reported that many purchases were replacements and essentials rather than discretionary extras.
Non-food non-store (those transactions which take place over the internet, or via mail order or telesales) sales in January were 19.2 per cent higher than a year ago. This was weaker than the 30 per cent gain in December, when consumers were increasingly using the internet for Christmas shopping.
Stephen Robertson, director general for the British Retail Consortium, said: “These surprisingly good figures give some room for optimism. Overall sales growth turned positive and is higher than it's been since last May.
“Non-food sales fell more slowly suggesting January clearance deals released pent-up demand and customers started to spend on goods they’ve been intending to buy for months.
“But the fundamentals haven't changed. Job fears are mounting. Consumer confidence is at record lows. It remains to be seen whether January’s discount driven growth was just a blip.”
Helen Dickinson, head of retail for KPMG, said: "Following three months' year-on-year declines in the total value of retail sales and seven months of declines in like-for-like sales, this appears to be significantly better but the figures don’t mean consumer confidence has returned.
“The results are heavily skewed by food prices creeping back up again after the heavy promotional activity in December and by a reasonably strong performance in the first week of the month, caused by the continuation of a short-lived pick up in spending immediately after Christmas which ended by the second week.
“The divergence in the non-food sectors between those that are doing well and those that are not, continues to grow, meaning the outlook for many retailers, and the industry as a whole, remains challenging."