Heavy snow kept shoppers away from high streets and shopping centres on Saturday – crucially, the last before Christmas.
Synovate, which measures UK retail footfall, said there were almost a quarter fewer shoppers around on Saturday than on the same day in 2009.
Hardest-hit areas were the West Midlands and the south east, each suffering a 30% drop in footfall.
Footfall on Saturday December 18 also dropped 20.5% over the previous Saturday.
The effect of the weather is likely to have impeded the previous upward trend of sales on the high street, which showed strong year-on-year growth in the first half of December.
In the latest CBI Distributive Trades Survey, 67% of retailers said that December sales were higher than a year ago, while just 11% said they were lower, giving a balance of +56%, the highest figure since April 2002. There have now been six months of strong sales figures in a row since July.
The sub-sectors with the strongest growth were hardware and DIY, clothing and non-specialised retailers such as department stores, and grocers.
However, retailers anticipate slower growth next month, with a balance of +35% expecting volume of sales to be higher than a year ago as spending is brought forward ahead of the January increase in VAT.