Shopping centres suffered the worst decline in visitors, with footfall plunging 4.3 per cent on a year ago, the BRC-Springboard Footfall Monitor showed, while out-of-town footfall fell 2.1 per cent and high streets were down two per cent.
But footfall rose by 3.3 per cent on a week-on-week basis, with shopping centres jumping 5.7 per cent.
BRC director general Helen Dickinson said there was still time for retailers to gain lost ground.
“We’re predicting a last-minute rush which means it’s all still to play for in terms of how Christmas trading ends up overall,” she said.
Diane Wehrle, research director at Springboard, said the year-on-year decline was “symptomatic” of the pressures on the retail sector and on consumers this Christmas.
She said the figures were also down against strong comparatives a year ago.
The shift towards online shopping has also distracted spend away from shopping centres and high streets.
Visa Europe said this Saturday is set to be the busiest high street shopping day of the year, as consumers hold out for last minute bargains and take advantage of the extra weekend ahead of Christmas.
The firm predicts shoppers will spend £1.26bn on their Visa cards on Saturday – or £15,000 every second.
Visa’s weekly tracker showed spending increased by 1.7 per cent in the week to 16 December but was still down on the year by 2.9 per cent.
“The way in which Christmas falls this year means that, in comparison to 2011, we appear to be a week behind in terms of consumer spending,” Dr Steve Perry, commercial director, said.
Lacklustre figures from the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) also suggested a weak start to the key Christmas trading period.
The CBI distributive trades survey showed that the balance of retailers reporting that sales were up year-on-year fell back to +19 in December from a five-month high of +33.
Analysts had forecast a smaller decline to +25.