British retail sales raced ahead of expectations over the crucial Christmas period as they leapt 2.6% during December, equalling an all-time record.

Experts had pencilled in a rise of just 0.2% over the month, a make-or-break period for many high street businesses.

The figures from the country’s Office for National Statistics come on the back of buoyant trading updates from the likes of Argos, Halfords, Primark and Next, though Marks & Spencer and Debenhams struggled.

The month-on-month increase in volume equals the previous high in February 2010. 

The rise compared to the same month last year was a nine-year high at 5.3%, equalling the level in October 2004.

Small stores did better, with the amount spent in them increasing by 8.1% as against 2.6% for larger stores, compared with December 2012.

But department stores grew sales volumes by 11.7% - the highest year-on-year growth since January 2000.

The overall amount spent in shops was up 3.6% compared with the same month last year, with food stores improving by 2.2% and non-food stores by 4.4%.

Shoppers spent £44.1 billion, or £8.8 billion a week, in December 2013, up from £42.6 billion, or £8.5 billion a week, in December 2012.

Internet sales increased 11.8% by value compared with the same month last year, with average weekly spending online at £675.4 million.