Boots chief executive Richard Baker has promised to tighten up availability at high street chain Boots the Chemists after predicting a grim run-in to Christmas.

The retailer said availability, gauged by gap checks each day, is running at 98 per cent. Boots retail director Scott Wheway, who has joined from Tesco, will spend his first six months ensuring store staff can deliver the military-style precision required to operate on the lower stock holdings in the new, more flexible supply chain. 'The market is pretty ugly at the moment, competition is intense. I think it is going to be a week-to-week battle all the way through to Christmas,' said Baker.

Less stock has been bought for Christmas. Festive ranges are not smaller and will roll to more stores, but the retailer aims to secure more sales at full price.

At last week's annual general meeting, Boots said group sales increased 1.9 per cent in the first quarter, with like-for-like sales at Boots the Chemists falling 0.8 per cent. Mandatory price reductions on the medicines Boots dispenses contributed 0.5 per cent to the decline. Like-for-likes in health and beauty and toiletries were flat, with lifestyle - including summer ranges, food and photo processing - down 5.6 per cent.

Baker said Boots the Chemists gained market share in skincare and sunshop, but fluctuations in other categories resulted in a 'score draw'. He added that the retailer's prestige cosmetics business delivered double-digit growth over the period, fuelled by the revamp of No7.

Over the quarter, Boots the Chemists reduced the price of 450 toiletries and over-the-counter medicines by about 12 per cent, against a backdrop of 2 per cent price deflation. Broker Merrill Lynch said it saw no sign of renewed aggression from the supermarkets.

'We believe Boots has some firepower to respond if necessary,' noted Merrill Lynch analyst Katharine Wynne.