Total sales plunged 16.6 per cent last month compared with December 2019, when they had dipped just 0.6 per cent.
While total food sales were up 3.3 per cent in December as supermarkets saw a surge in trade amid the closure of much of the rest of the high street, total non-food sales tumbled 33.4 per cent, according to the latest sales monitor from the Scottish Retail Consortium (SRC) and KPMG.
SRC director David Lonsdale said: “Scotland’s retailers are in the depths of the biggest crisis in two decades after the worst ever December trading.
“Food sales remained positive but recorded their second weakest monthly performance since the spring, underwhelming considering the lack of competition from eateries.
“Non-food sales from stores slumped dramatically, by over a third compared to the same period the previous year. Closed stores for much of the month coupled with the loss of the post-Christmas discounting period clobbered non-food shops, removing the final chance for them to tempt customers and shift unsold stock.
“Online sales fared well and blunted the decline somewhat for non-food categories.
“It was a Blue Christmas for retail – and with shopkeepers missing out on much of the golden trading quarter the pressure on those businesses is reaching boiling point.”
The fall in sales was slightly less pronounced when measured on a like-for-like basis, which takes into account store closures, openings and changes in selling space.
Overall food and non-food sales decreased by 15.6 per cent on that measure compared with December 2019, when they had slipped 1.5 per cent.
Lonsdale added: “It isn’t just down to weak Christmas trading. Across 2020 sales fell massively – far and away the worst figures SRC has reported during 22 years of the survey.
“This fall can be clearly attributed to the repeated lockdowns and weak economy; and the bleaker picture compared to the UK as a whole shows how retail has suffered from longer lasting lockdowns and restrictions.
“Tough restrictions may be right to tackle Covid, but need to be matched with support for the industry.”
Paul Martin, partner, UK head of retail at KPMG, said: “It would be an understatement to describe December’s figures are potentially devastating for the industry.
“The final run-up to Christmas offered Scotland’s high streets the opportunity to regain some lost ground, but our data suggests sales stuttered throughout the month, before falling sharply in the final few days and weeks of December.
“Increasing Covid cases, ongoing restrictions and a tightening of rules on social gatherings appear to have seriously dented any prospects of short-term recovery.”
He added: “Throughout 2020, non-food retailers bore the brunt of the pandemic and December’s figures reinforce that fact.
“2021 will undoubtedly be one of the most challenging years ever for Scotland’s retail sector, but there is some light at the end of the tunnel for the businesses with adequate cash flow and a focus on adapting alongside evolving consumer behaviour.”