20/02/2012 06:06 GMT | Updated 20/02/2012 06:09 GMT

High Streets Face 'Bleak' Future After January Sales Make Muted Impact

Many high streets are facing a "bleak" future after shopper numbers fell despite the January sales, a report warned on Monday.

Footfall on high streets dropped 0.9% in January compared to the previous year, according to a survey by Springboard and the British Retail Consortium (BRC), but out-of-town retail parks continued to gain popularity.

High streets enjoyed a 5.1% increase in visitors in December as desperate retailers brought special offers forward to before Christmas, but this left traditional January sales with less appeal.

The report, which also found that an average of 11% of shops in town centres were boarded up in January, will add to fears of more closures in coming months as shoppers increasingly turn to out-of-town centres and the internet.

BRC director general Stephen Robertson said shoppers remain too nervous to spend and "the condition of too many high streets is still bleak".

He added: "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. At the start of 2012 footfall numbers dipped again, showing underlying caution hasn't changed."

While high streets and shopping centres suffered a hangover in January, out-of-town retail parks enjoyed a 0.7% rise in visitor numbers.

High streets have been the worst hit by the fall in shopper numbers over the past 12 months, with footfall down 4.8%, whereas shopping centres and out-of-town retail parks have seen visitors fall 2.8% and 2.3% respectively.

However, overall shopper numbers in December increased for the first time in five years, with the early discounting driving a 6% rise.

This helped footfall rise 1.8% in the past three months despite declines in November and January.

The biggest falls in footfall in this period were in Scotland, down 8.5%, and the southwest, which was 7.5% lower. However, Wales, Northern Ireland and the southeast all enjoyed increases.

The vacancy rate in town centres was unchanged over the past three months, although Northern Ireland has the highest average of 14.1%, while 12.9% are shut in the north and Yorkshire, and 12.4% in the east midlands.

The southwest had the lowest vacancy rate of 7%, followed by Scotland, the east and the southeast.

But there are fears of more closures after a spate of retailers, including Peacocks went into administration but have yet to close stores, and others such as Mothercare have said they will close town centre stores to focus more on retail parks.

Diane Wehrle, research director at Springboard, said out-of-town shopping continues are still growing as consumers seek to avoid car parking charges and become "increasingly targeted about what they're buying".

Figures from the Office for National Statistics last week revealed a surprise 0.9% rise in sales volumes in January. But with strong growth from supermarkets and out-of-town centres, this is not thought to be a fair reflection of the gloom surrounding the UK's high streets.