Marks & Spencer has kicked off a mid-season Sale days after distributing 800,000 friends and family discount vouchers to staff, sparking fears of weak clothing sales on the high street.

The 50 per cent discount off clothing and homewares items has begun less than a month before the end of the retailer’s financial year.

However, both Marks & Spencer and analysts have played down that the timing of the Sale falls at any different time of the year than usual. M&S said there was less stock on offer than this time 12 months ago.

Kaupthing analyst Matthew McEachran said: “While for many the timing is no different to last year, these mid-season Sales are likely to have some negative foundations, given the shocking anecdotes about trading in February.”

He added: “For M&S though, if there is any excess stock, we believe it is very specific to one or another product area rather than widespread – if anything, M&S has been so tight on stock it has faced stock-outs in some of the better selling lines. While sales are likely to be poor, we are still wed to the idea that M&S's margins may surprise on the upside.”

Debenhams began its three-day “Spring Spectacular” Sale today, with reductions of up to 25 per cent on clothing, homewares and cosmetics.