Like-for-like sales dropped by 1.7% in March compared with the same period in 2013, with the later timing of Easter this year blamed for the fall, according to figures from the British Retail Consortium (BRC).
The timing of Easter deepened the ongoing declines being suffered by embattled grocery retailers but fashion stores did better as the mild weather encouraged shoppers while a strong Mother's Day also helped. Dresses, blouses, slippers and men's shorts all sold well, helping to boost clothing by comparison with a period last year which was depressed by severe cold weather.
Footwear and health and beauty were also strongly-performing categories while food and home products -most affected by the timing of Easter - showed a decline.
BRC director-general Helen Dickinson 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."
She said retailers hit by the timing of Easter would be looking to April's figures to see whether declines suffered in March were balanced out.
Online sales rose 12.8% last month, helped by the lack of Easter holidays, which tend to drive consumers out of the house and to the shops.
For the three-month period to March, food sales were down 2.7% on the year before.
It accelerated a decline since last autumn which is likely to be exacerbated by a coming price war as the major supermarkets aim to head off the threat from discounters Aldi and Lidl.