Under-pressure Marks & Spencer reported flat like-for-likes but its clothing performance picked up over the fourth quarter.

Marks & Spencer separated out clothing from its general merchandise sales to highlight that like-for-likes had inched up 0.6% and total sales increased 1.3%, halting a long-term decline in the category.

However general merchandise like-for-likes fell for the 11th consecutive quarter, dipping 0.6% while total sales edged up 0.2% in the 13 weeks to March 29.

UK like-for-likes were flat, down 0.2%, and total sales rose 1.5%. Group revenue rose 1.9%.

Marks & Spencer chief executive Marc Bolland said: “We are encouraged by womenswear, which is showing clear signs of improvement and performed ahead of clothing.”

The retailer said that customers were responding well to its refocus on quality and style with sales of M&S Collection womenswear, which was relaunched in Autumn, “notably up” on last year. It said its spring 2014 collection had also been “well received”.

However, the retailer said there were high levels of discounting in the general merchandise market. It expects second half general merchandise gross margin to be down, in line with the first half, but full-year food gross margin to be slightly ahead of previous guidance which will result in full-year UK margin to be down 20 basis points.

Food like-for-likes were up 0.1% and total sales advanced 2.5%. Bolland said: “Our food business had another great quarter, especially considering the later timing of Easter. This marks our 18th consecutive quarter of growth. We continued to outperform the market with record sales around key events including Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day.”

M&S said that customers turned to it for special events with a record number of Dine In deals sold on Valentine’s Day and record sales of chocolates and flowers on Mother’s Day.

It said it is prepared for the coming Easter season with a third of its range new for this year.

Meanwhile, its online sales rose 12.5% over a quarter in which it migrated from its Amazon-based website to its new platform. M&S is planning to launch a marketing campaign to promote the new site next month.

International sales increased 4.7% with “strong growth” in India, its Chinese flagships and in the Gulf. M&S said it was pleased with the performance in Western Europe, with “good improvement” in Greece and the Czech Republic. 

Marks & Spencer will report its full-year results on May 20.