An average of 14 town centre shops a day were shut by store chains last year as shoppers increasingly desert high streets for online and out-of-town retailers.
Multiple retailers with six or more shops failed to open as many stores as they closed last year for the first time since 2008, according to a study of the 500 biggest town centres in the UK by PwC and Local Data Company.
Stores selling books, electrical items, home furnishings, menswear, and holidays were the hardest hit, along with off-licences, bars and pubs.
And in a reflection of austerity Britain, pound stores, charity shops, credit unions, supermarkets and retailers selling convenience food all increased their store numbers.
Figures from the Office for National Statistics are expected to show today that UK retail sales volumes fell 0.4% between December and January, adding to fears for the future of high streets.
The decline was caused after retailers brought forward their traditional January sales to before Christmas to attract cash-strapped consumers.
In recent years, multiple retailers have generally expanded in town centres, taking up some of the slack for smaller independent stores who were hardest hit by the recession.
But 2011 saw multiple retailers reduce their presence in town centres, with the overall number of stores they operate falling by 174, or 0.25%.
The decline in the multiple sector will add further strain to high streets already struggling with vacancy rates of more than 30% in some parts of the UK.
Greater London saw the greatest fall in stores run by chains, down 101, but the South West, Scotland, North East and Yorkshire and Humberside were also badly hit.
Wales, the West Midlands, South East, North West and East Midlands all saw slight increases.
The figures were also driven higher by a number of high profile retail collapses in 2010, including Jane Norman and Habitat. With more retailers falling by the wayside in recent weeks, including lingerie specialist La Senza, shoe chain Barratts and fashion retailer Peacocks, more closures are expected in 2012.
Matthew Hopkinson, director of the Local Data Company, said: “In the past, the closures were offset by openings but 2011 has shown a true decline in multiple retail and leisure outlets across Great Britain.
“With the move to out-of-town locations and the numbers of closures being announced currently, this decline is likely to continue into 2012 and thus lead to a rise in vacancy rates.”
Christine Cross, chief retail adviser to PwC, said: “Inevitably, the reduction in consumer confidence and growth in online spend has placed pressure on retail return on space.
“There is no point in paying for space that is not earning its keep.”