There was a 3.5% decline in footfall at shopping destinations in all regions in the five weeks to 30 December 2017.
The drop marks the sharpest decrease seen since a 5.2% fall year on year in March 2013, the latest monthly figures from the BRC-Springboard footfall monitor show.
The year-on-year result for December was below a three-month average decline of 1.9% and a 12-month average decrease of 0.7%.
By category, footfall on the high street suffered the steepest drop after falling 4.6% on the previous year. The number of visitors at shopping centres tumbled by 3.8%, and tripped by 0.6% at retail parks.
There were decreases in footfall in all regions. The biggest drop was in the south-west, which fell by 5.2%; Scotland was down by 4.7%; and Greater London fell by 3.7%.
Helen Dickinson, chief executive at the British Retail Consortium (BRC), said: “The sharp drop in footfall this December, while sales grew overall, underlines how shopping is being transformed by the shift to online.
“In the past, shoppers would have exclusively visited physical stores to ensure stockings were filled for Christmas. Improved delivery options by both purely digital retailers and those with stores and an online offer mean many purchases of last-minute gifts are moving online.
“The squeeze on discretionary spending also contributed to the decline in footfall. Households had to use their money more carefully, researching products online, rather than heading out to stores to browse.
“Retail parks fared slightly better than high streets by providing Christmas shoppers with the draw and convenience of parking, easy click-and-collect, and leisure facilities.”
Diane Wehrle, Springboard marketing and insights director, added: “Moving forward into 2018, it is apparent that retailers need to focus on maximising conversion via the core deliverable of best product and customer service with an improved in-store experience, whilst holding their nerve and resisting discounting too early and so protecting margin.”