Marks & Spencer boss Marc Bolland said the retailer tried to hold its nerve over Christmas promotions but was forced into Sale early by “unprecedented” promotional activity.

Bolland said: “Holding our nerve was what we were doing but the market didn’t. The market was extremely promotional.”

He maintained: “We didn’t start it. One or two [retailers] started this very early and very deep. We were not more promotional than the market and were one of the last ones in. I walked the high street and everyone was 30% to 50% off.”

The retailer this morning revealed like-for-likes edged down 0.2% in the 13 weeks to December 28, after a poor performance in clothing during an unseasonably warm October resulted in general merchandise like-for-likes falling 2.1% over the quarter.

Yet Bolland, who was under pressure to deliver a strong Christmas after overhauling the fashion offer last year, insisted M&S had the right strategy. He said that fashion sales picked up in November and December and that, after a positive festive trading period, the retailer increased its share of the clothing market by 10 basis points over the quarter.

“If we single out Christmas trading, we see the product was right and we came out of it in a clean stock position,” said Bolland.

He said that Marks & Spencer’s full-price sales were up in November and December.

Bolland said Christmas “came late” this year. “Customers told us ‘we’re waiting a bit longer for our purchasing’,” he added.

Bolland highlighted Marks & Spencer’s “exceptional” performance in food – like-for-likes jumped 6.1% in the three weeks to January 4 – and online and internationally.

“I must confess this was not an easy Christmas,” said Bolland. “It’s been a difficult quarter but we’re seeing encouraging signs. We are on a transformation.”

Bolland said the retailer’s online clothing business increased share from 6.4% to 7.2% over the quarter.  “We’re number three in ecomm in clothing and we’re nearly overtaking number two,” said Bolland. “And we did it on an old platform. We hope with our new platform and infrastructure within 12 months we’re a little bit more in that number two space.”

Online sales now account for 16% of the overall general merchandise business.                                        

Bolland conceded that rival Next had performed better over Christmas, and said the retailer benefited from having a stronger online offer. “The proportion of dotcom in our business compared to theirs is different,” he said. “During Christmas there was a tendency to go online and they benefited from that. Next did a better job but we are doing the right thing and growing quickly. There is a lag and we’re catching up.”

Next reported sales up 11.9% between November 1 and December 24.

Bolland added: “This market will be a difficult market but we are at the right end of it with dotcom. The business is taking the right steps.”

Bolland remained cautious on the hopes of an imminent retail recovery. “People tell us they are less worried about the macro economics but that it’s still hard to feel the personal benefits.

“And there is a difference in optimism by region. There is a sharp difference between the South and the North and Scotland. It is more positive in the South.”

Marks & Spencer blames warm weather and discounting for lacklustre quarter