Retail giant Marks & Spencer has unveiled a better-than-expected rise in half-year profits, but saw a further fall in sales at its embattled clothing arm as it cut back on sales promotions.
The chain said underlying pre-tax profits rose 6.1 per cent to £284m in the six months to September 26 thanks to higher food sales and as it focused on profit margins in its general merchandise business, which includes womenswear.
But its decision not to join rivals in discounting left the group nursing another fall in like-for-like general merchandise sales, down 1.9 per cent in its second quarter.
The group said trading conditions on the high street were tough as firms slashed prices to shift stock after being hit by unseasonal conditions over the summer.
M&S boss Marc Bolland insisted the chain’s decision not to run hefty discounts was the right move, despite leading to a steeper fall in general merchandise sales, following on from a 0.4 per cent drop in the first quarter.
He said: “We delivered good underlying profit growth in the first half and made strong progress against our key priorities.”
He added: “In general merchandise, we decided to improve profitability by focusing on gross margin, delivering another significant increase, which in part resulted in slightly lower sales.”
Mr Bolland also pointed to a decent performance in the group’s food division, which he said outperformed the market once more, with like-for-like sales ahead by 0.2 per cent in its second quarter, although this marked a slight drop on the 0.3 per cent the previous three months.
M&S has been making efforts to cut sourcing costs in the general merchandise business, which is helping push up profits and offset clothing sales slides.
A robust hike in online sales also helped the group in its first half, with M&S.com seeing sales surge by 34.2 per cent.
But the firm cautioned that trading will remain difficult on the high street.
“Despite some improvement in consumer confidence, market conditions continue to be challenging in both the UK and the international markets,” it said.
M&S has seen clothing sales slip back into the red for two quarters in a row, having raised hopes of a turnaround earlier this year, when it saw a surprise 0.7 per cent quarterly rise in general merchandise sales.
The rise was only a temporary reprieve, coming after more than three years of falls.
However, its profits have turned the corner, with the group posting its first rise in annual earnings for four years in May, easing some of the intense pressure Mr Bolland has been under in recent years.
Items such as a much-talked about 1970s-style suede skirt worn by TV presenter and model Alexa Chung have also helped improve the image of M&S’s clothing range.