Independent retailers have reported a surprise sales boost as national retail chains continue to retreat from UK high streets.

In the last quarter of 2011, more than half of small shopkeepers surveyed by the British Independent Retailers Association (Bira) reported higher sales than the same period the year previously, the biggest proportion since the survey began in 2007.

While big chains such as Mothercare, Thorntons and Dixons continue to cull high street stores, the uptick suggests independents are winning the custom of remaining shoppers.

“Multiple retailers are pulling in their horns, and in some way, this opens up opportunities for independents who tend to cluster together in towns,” said Michael Weedon, Bira's deputy chief executive.

However, his upbeat views were not shared by the Local Data Company, which last week revealed that shop vacancy rates in many northern towns were worse than Athens.

Pointing out that independents now account for 66 per cent of all high street shops, a 1 per cent increase from a year ago, director Matthew Hopkinson was not convinced the sales gains would last.

“The proportion of independent shops has got bigger by default as shop vacancy rates have increased, and numbers of national retail chain stores have reduced,” he said. “Understanding exactly were these business are located is key, as independents tend to do well in areas with more affluent shoppers.”

Bira's research showed that independent cookshops were one of the brightest spots on the high street, reporting an average 5.9 per cent sales increase. However, independent retailers selling books, toys, music and computers saw sales crash by an average 11.9 per cent in the period.

“Retailers facing internet competition are faring the worst, especially if what they’re selling can be downloaded, or can fit through a letter box,” Mr Weedon said.

On a regional basis, retailers in Scotland fared the worst, with a 8.3 per cent average decline in sales, compared to a 4.3 per cent increase recorded from respondents in London and the South East.

The research comes in the wake of demands from prominent retailers to turn underperforming high streets into housing. “If the government wants an engine for regeneration in town centres, we have evidence that it’s there and working and should be supported,” Mr Weedon added.

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