Footfall in the three months to January was 1.8% up on a year ago, thanks largely to an increase in out-of-town shopping.
The rise in shopper numbers was better than the 2.3% fall in the previous three months, the BRC/Springboard-ATCM Footfall and Vacancies Monitor has revealed today.
Footfall improved in all types of locations, notably out-of-town shopping centres with a 3.1% increase, compared with high streets up 1.4% and in-town shopping centres up 0.8%.
Averaging over the last 12 months, high streets have fared worst, with a 4.8% decline.
The hardest-hit locations in the past three months were in Scotland, down -8.5% and the South West, down 7.5%.
Wales (up 11.4%), Northern Ireland (up 7.2%) and the South East (up 7.1%) all performed strongly over the period.
The national town centre vacancy rate in the UK was 11.1% in January 2012, unchanged from October 2011.
Northern Ireland (14.1%), the North and Yorkshire (12.9%) and East Midlands (12.4%) recorded the highest vacancy rates.
BRC director general Stephen Robertson said conditions on the high street are still “bleak”.
He said: “The lift in shopper numbers for the quarter is almost entirely down to a strong Christmas. And December looks deceptively good because it’s being compared with the heavy snowfall which affected the end of 2010 and kept many people at home then.
“At the start of 2012 footfall numbers dipped again, showing underlying caution hasn’t changed. Worries about personal finances and job security are putting people off shopping. Although inflation has started to ease, costs are still rising faster than wages. Any significant change in consumer sentiment is going to take time.”
Springboard research director Diane Wehrle said: “Despite recent concerns over the health of high streets, footfall defied analyst expectations over the last quarter with an uplift of nearly 2%.
“This is positive news considering some key players have recently gone into administration and there’s been a wave of profit loss announcements. For the first time in five years December saw footfall up on the previous year as savvy shoppers took advantage of heavy retailer discounting.”
Wehrle said an improvement in out-of-town shopping figures reflects consumers avoiding town centre parking charges and increasingly “targeted” purchases at specific shops.