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About 12,000 independent shops and nearly 7,000 branches of major chains have closed so far this year in England and Wales, according to research.
The Local Data Company (LDC) says the average retail vacancy rate has risen from 4% a year ago to almost 12% now.
Margate in Kent is the worst hit town, with a rate of 25%. Cities in the north of England like Leeds and Liverpool also have rates of more than 20%.
LDC said empty shops had "a corrosive effect upon the confidence of an area".
The collapse of Woolworths has had a major impact on high streets, LDC said, with about 70% of its 800-plus shops still lying empty.
The study said there had been a 50% drop in new store openings in the past 18 months and in some areas, a marked increase "churn" - where a shop is opened and closed repeatedly under new guises.
The highest churn rate, more than 700%, was found in Wakefield, West Yorkshire, with the next worst - Wolverhampton - seeing a rise of 387%.