More than one in 10 shops are empty, according to the British Retail Consortium (BRC), the highest since it began collecting data on occupancy levels of High Street premises.
The BRC said the town centre vacancy rate of 11.3% was the worst figure since its nationwide survey began in July 2011.
The figures come as the failed retailer Comet prepares to close stores.
The BRC said the worst affected region was Northern Ireland. The vacancy rate there was 20%.
The two next worst regions, Wales and the North and Yorkshire, each had about 15% of retail premises lying empty.
The BRC’s director general, Stephen Robertson, said the new figures would set “alarm bells ringing”.
Other big branded chains that have either gone under or cut back their number of outlets include JJB Sports, Clinton Cards, Blacks Leisure, Game and Peacocks.
The BRC survey also said that overall footfall – which attempts to measure the number of shoppers – dropped by 0.4% on a year ago in the three months to October, with a big drop-off in numbers in October itself, when numbers fell by 2.6%.
The findings echo those from the Office for National Statistics, which last week showed retail sales fell 0.8% in October.
Mr Robertson said that retailers were also being hurt by higher prices and overheads: “Many retailers are battling stagnating sales and rising costs, and next year’s threatened business rates increase can only make matters worse.
“If the government wants to breathe life back into our town centres and ensure the retail industry can play its full role in job creation it needs to freeze rates in 2013.”