Marks & Spencer chief executive Marc Bolland insisted progress is being made at the bellwether retailer, despite a fall in interim profits.

Marks & Spencer’s food business performed strongly in the first half, but general merchandise continued to struggle.

The retailer reported underlying profit before tax was down to £261.6m in the 26 weeks to September 28, versus £287.3m last year. Group sales edged up from £4.7bn to £4.9bn.

Food like-for-likes rose 2.5% over the half year. Following a 1.8% increase in the first quarter there was a 3.2% advance in the second.

General merchandise like-for-likes slipped 1.5% over the 26 weeks. The rate of decline improved from 1.6% in the first quarter to 1.3% in the second.

M&S chief executive Marc Bolland said: “Our key priority was the re-launch of womenswear. In September we launched our first new collection with new advertising and improved store formats.

“Although only in store for three weeks of the half year, our autumn/winter collection has been well received by customers, and we have seen some early signs of improvement.”

Along with food, Bolland cited the performance of M&S’s online and international operations as having been strong. Its website sales rose 28.5% in the half while international revenues climbed 8%.

The retailer reported that general merchandise had been affected by “challenging” trading conditions such as unseasonable weather and high levels of promotions.

However, M&S maintained: “We have continued to make operational improvements in our buying and merchandising. We have worked on reducing proliferation in the ranges, with the autumn/winter SKU count down 10% in womenswear.

“We backed key departments including dresses and coats, resulting in sales performance up 60% in dresses and 20% in coats, despite the unseasonal conditions. We also delivered an improvement in availability through the move to ‘push’ method of stock allocation, which has now been rolled out to all stores.”

As Christmas nears, the trading environment remains challenging. The retailer said: “While consumer confidence appears to be improving, there is little evidence as yet of this translating to increased spending in the retail sector.

“Given continued pressure on disposable incomes, we remain cautious about the outlook for the remainder of the year. However, we are well set up for the key Christmas trading period with more innovation and choice than ever before. Our overall expectations for the full year remain unchanged.”