Footfall at the Boxing Day sales was down by more than half on last year as non-essential retail remained closed in much of the country under tightened coronavirus restrictions.
While queues were seen outside shops in areas under tiers 2 and 3, high streets in the 43% of England that is under tier 4 were empty.
The retail intelligence agency Springboard said Boxing Day footfall in the UK up to 10am was down 57% compared with last year.
Diane Wehrle, the insights director at Springboard, said: “[The sales are] not going to be normal in the slightest. That’s really because much of the country is under tier 4 restrictions, which is going to severely impact Boxing Day sales and push people online.
“But there’s a bit of comfort-buying coming into play, because people can’t go out, which is good for retailers. The problem is, for the majority of retailers the sales they get online are much smaller than what they get in store.”
The Centre for Retail Research estimated that £1.45bn would be taken in physical stores on Saturday, with a further £1.79bn taken online
The centre’s director, Prof Joshua Bamfield, said the tier 4 restrictions had “ripped the heart out of Boxing Day sales”. He said: “We had been expecting offline (bricks and mortar stores) to provide hard-pressed retailers with sales of £2,260m, and even this would have been 25% down on last year, but £1,450m must be lower than any year since 1999.
“Online retail has risen higher to compensate for the fact that non-essential stores are all closed in tier 4 areas, but only by 5%. Christmas sales were always going to be problematic in times of Covid-19 but these figures are a disaster for the sector.”
Many customers in lower tiers took advantage of the festive discounts, with some queueing outside shops in the early hours. Outside Next in Leicester, which is under tier 3 restrictions, around 200 people had formed a socially distanced queue by 5.50am. At another Next store, in Birmingham, customers queued from 4am, with security guards hired to monitor the crowds.
The queues stood in sharp contrast to the scenes in London, in tier 4, where popular shopping stretches on Regent Street and Oxford Street were deserted.
Several parts of England including Sussex, Norfolk and Cambridgeshire joined London and other parts of the south and east of England, including Kent, Essex and Berkshire, in tier 4 restrictions on Boxing Day, meaning non-essential retailers selling clothing, toys, furniture and electrical goods were closed.
High streets in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were also largely shut, and Marks & Spencer joined John Lewis in deciding to remain closed nationwide on Boxing Day this year.