Shoppers flooded back on to high streets as non-essential stores reopened after the four-week national lockdown.
Initial data from retail research firm Springboard shows shopping destinations across England saw footfall surge by 64.5% on Wednesday morning, compared with the same day last week.
High streets received a much-needed boost after a grim week for the sector, which has seen thousands of jobs put at risk at Arcadia Group, Debenhams and Bonmarche.
Springboard said high street footfall before 12pm was 63% higher week-on-week, while shopping centres saw a 100.7% surge.
Market towns particularly benefited from the reopening of shops, reporting a 96.8% jump in footfall, while shopper numbers in central London jumped by 59.4%.
But footfall across the country was still significantly lower than it was on the same day of last year.
The data shows footfall across shopping destinations in England was down 24.1% against the same period last year.
Figures from Barclaycard Payments show credit card sales were lower than on Black Friday despite the reopening, as online sales slumped in the face of shops opening their doors again.
It reported a 16.9% decrease in the volume of payments compared to the same period on Black Friday.
Rob Cameron, chief executive of Barclaycard Payments, said: “With physical stores only having been open for a few hours, it’s not surprising that today is tracking behind Black Friday in transactions.
“We expect the gap between Black Friday and ‘Black Wednesday’ to narrow as we continue through the day, as more shoppers hit the high streets – especially with many retailers extending their opening hours to take advantage of the new social distancing guidelines.”
Early birds had hit the stores to avoid the queues first thing on Wednesday.
Droves of customers queued early outside store giants such as Primark and Nike Town in London’s Oxford Street on what has been dubbed “Wild Wednesday”.
Jordan Roberts, 19, was among a dozen people queuing outside Selfridges in the popular shopping destination before the flagship department store opened its doors.
Miss Roberts said she was doing her Christmas shopping, adding: “It feels more enjoyable being in a store and things run out of stock online. It’s good to have our freedom back.”
The majority of England is now under Tier 2 and 3 of the new Covid-19 restrictions, which limit social contact between households but allow non-essential stores to open.
London shopper Tamara Rass, 44, said she hit the shops early as she expected them to get busy.
She said: “For me, it’s a little bit of light at the end of the tunnel and getting back to normality.
“There are things in store that I can’t get online and I like to treat my daughter once a month.”
Business leaders hope the British high street will be given a boost in the final weeks before Christmas, as retailers battle to recover from crippling restrictions during the pandemic.
But the jobs of nearly 25,000 staff at Sir Philip Green’s Arcadia Group hang in the balance, with fashion chain Bonmarche the latest retailer to collapse into administration for the second time in just over a year.
Selfridges stores director Maeve Wall said: “It’s never a good time when you hear other department stores and brands on the high street closing.
“It’s definitely a sad period of time and particularly to hear so many potential job losses.
“Retail this year, along with hospitality, it’s been really challenging and Christmas is such a big part of the retail calendar.
“The next couple of weeks we have ahead of us, hopefully the measures put in place across the country, people will come out and feel safe.”
Across the West End, a few shoppers were scattered around Covent Garden where independent stallholders eagerly awaited their first customers after nearly a month.
Jane Ireland has had her family-run stall, selling hand-painted silk ties, for 40 years.
On England coming out of lockdown, she said: “It’s a little bit of hope but I’m not that optimistic.
“There are no tourists around and we depend on them in this part of London.”
She said the tiering system also poses challenges as regular customers from outside of London are unlikely to travel to the capital.
“A lot of customers over the years would come down from places like Scotland to go to the theatres and then here, but people can’t leave their tiers,” she said.
“It’s chipping away at potential customers.
“When theatres open up again we might get more of a buzz.”