Footfall – a measure of how busy shopping areas are – was 5.2 per cent lower in March than it was a year ago, and worse than the 0.8 per cent rise recorded the previous month.
The fall is the biggest decline in total retail footfall in the UK since April 2012, the figures from the British Retail Consortium (BRC) show.
The dip has been blamed on the Arctic weather last month, the coldest March since 1962, according to Met Office data.
BRC director general Helen Dickinson said: “The prolonged cold was the main culprit for deterring shoppers, especially compared against the far milder March of 2012.
“Although footfall did pick up around the Easter weekend, it couldn’t fully compensate for a weak showing across the month as a whole.”
The figures show high streets reported the greatest dip, as footfall plunged seven per cent.
Out of town shopping at places like retail parks slid 4.2 per cent versus a 2.9 per cent increase in shoppers a year ago. Shopping centres recorded a 2.4 per cent slide.
Meanwhile, the Federation of Small Businesses has estimated the cold snap cost the UK’s small businesses around £174m.
Research commissioned by the group, which polled 1,603 of its members, found each business lost £1,580 on average due to the prolonged cold weather.
“Not only have they had to cope with a lack of demand for products, but many have had to close,” FSB national policy chairman Mike Cherry said.
“Our fear is that this prolonged cold spell will mean people are travelling by car to supermarkets or out of town shopping centres rather than utilising local shops.”
Of those shops forced to close due to the cold weather, 2.2 trading days were lost on average, the study found. Almost a third of firms also had staff absent for at least one day.