Marks & Spencer has posted a strong food performance from its food arm over Christmas but general merchandise sales fell and margins were hit by promotions.

Marks & Spencer reported food like-for-likes excluding VAT up 3% in the third quarter to December 31, when general merchandise like-for-likes slipped 1.8% resulting in a 0.5% uplift at group level.

Total UK sales, excluding VAT, advanced 1.8%. Food was up 4.5% and general merchandise was down 0.8%. Group sales rose 2.4% in the period.

The retailer expects conditions to remain challenging and said that the extent of promotions would result in lower gross margin than expected. However extra savings as a result of tight cost management will offset the margin hit.

M&S chief executive Marc Bolland maintained that M&S had traded well in challenging conditions.

He said: “Our food business performed very strongly as customers enjoyed our new and traditional Christmas products.

“In clothing our focus was on offering our customers real value at a time when they’re managing their budgets carefully. Our trading strategy worked well, delivering a record performance in many categories including menswear and sleepwear.”

Clothing sales rose 1.1%. Home sales were down 13.3%, affected by the retailer’s exit from technology products.

Direct sales surged 22.4% and international sales were up 8.1%, reflecting continued growth in the priority markets of India and Shanghai, as well as in our franchise business.

The retailer said its new Paris flagship “had a very good start”.