Customers were lured by slashed prices as shops tried to make up for a dent in pre-Christmas sales caused by low temperatures and heavy snow.
Sales of high-valued goods such as furniture and televisions were boosted further as shoppers moved quickly to fill their baskets before the rate of VAT rises from 17.5 to 20 per cent on January 4.
Because Boxing Day fell on a Sunday, trading was restricted to only six hours, and many customers arrived early to maximise their time in the aisles. Stores expect a second bumper day today when they can open their doors for longer.
At the Meadowhall Centre in Sheffield, the inner ring road car park had reached its 9,500-space capacity before the shops opened for business at 11am, with people queuing outside electrical and fashion stores.
The centre's marketing director, Richard Pinfold, said: "It's clearly a popular day for shopping despite it being a Sunday and shorter trading day. People are voting with their feet and wanting to shop."
It was a similar story at the White Rose Centre in Leeds, where bosses said its 4,800 parking spaces were full for almost the whole day.
Centre director Peter Cook said the number of shoppers had been "phenomenal" and paid tribute to staff for a "magnificent job" in ensuring the mall was kept safe during cold weather.
"Shoppers came in droves to bag a bargain," he said. "We were busy from the moment our doors opened and throughout the day.
"The vast majority of retailers are offering 50 per cent discounts, with some offering 70 per cent. People are in a spending mood.
"Though this Boxing Day fell on a Sunday, with its shorter trading, we estimate that, compared on an hour-for-hour basis, we had as many people through our doors as were here last year.
"With the sub-zero temperatures in recent weeks, our team has worked tirelessly to keep car parks, footpaths and roadways around the site gritted and safe."
Simon Clarke, technical services manager at Leeds Shopping Plaza, in the city centre, said: "Shoppers were tempted into town with some eye-catching sales offers and the tills were ringing all day."