January retail sales were 2.3% higher on a like-for-like basis than the same month in 2010, according to the British Retail Consortium.
The BRC-KPMG Retail Sales Monitor put total retail sales 4.2% ahead of a year ago when stores were hit by heavy snow.
Internet, phone and mail order sales growth fell back to 12.3% in January, from 18% in December.
BRC director general Stephen Robertson said: “On the surface, this is the best sales growth since last March, but that’s not the whole story.
“Comparisons are with a feeble, snow-hit performance a year ago.”
Sales and the VAT rise saw a strong burst of retail activity at the start of the month, which tailed off later on, Robertson added.
“Turning round consumer confidence is central to turning round the economy,” he said. “A range of pressures is bearing down on customers. As it considers the Budget the government must not add any more.”