Numbers of shoppers suffered the heaviest fall for six months in September to trigger fresh worries about the health of consumer spending.
Footfall on UK high streets, in shopping centres and out-of-town retail parks dropped 2.4% on the same month a year earlier, figures from the British Retail Consortium (BRC) showed.
That was the steepest decline since March, although followed a strong month a year earlier when footfall rose 0.5% in September 2012 on the back of pent up demand from the Olympics and cold weather.
Footfall on high streets dropped by 5% from August, fell 2.1% in shopping centres and was down 0.4% in out-of-town retail parks.
Diane Wehrle, retail insights director at researcher Springboard, said while shopper numbers typically decline in September as people go back to work and school, the month-on-month drop was bigger than in previous years.
Helen Dickinson said: “Negative numbers across the UK are clearly a concern this close to Christmas.
“Tentative optimism is continuing to take hold in the wider economy, but many of us remain cautious and keen to manage our budgets in the run-up to the festive season.”
Across the UK, the south west and west Midlands were the worst hit, suffering declines of 5.5% and 3.5% respectively on a year earlier, the BRC/Springboard Footfall Monitor showed.
Shopping centres’ problems intensified with a 12th consecutive monthly fall in footfall, which was down 2.9% on a year earlier.
Ms Wehrle said this “clearly highlights the challenges that malls are currently facing in retaining customer numbers”.
The figures paint a mixed picture for the health of Britain’s retail sector, and follow recent official data which showed a stronger-than-expected 0.6% increase in retail sales volumes in September on August.
Surging sales of furniture - typically big ticket items - were behind the increase and offset another tough month for supermarkets. Those figures also showed internet shopping increased by 19.1% on a year earlier to an average of £615 million a week.
Online shopping now accounts for 10.2% of all retail spending, excluding fuel, the Office for National Statistics said.