Marks & Spencer failed to lure enough customers to its stores to turn around the company's continued fall in fortunes in its clothing division, as sales fell for a ninth consecutive quarter.
Bosses claimed the new autumn/winter collection had performed well in stores, in the first season designed by the company's new management team. But analysts cast doubt on their explanation that the fashions had only been stocked for three weeks covering yesterday's results period and therefore could not make a meaningful impact on the numbers.
Sales of general merchandise were down 1.5 per cent for the first half of M&S's financial year, and down 1.3 per cent in the 13 weeks to the end of September. But Nick Bubb, an independent retail analyst, said: "It is interesting that M&S say that the much-vaunted autumn womenswear range was only in store for the last three weeks of September, as they were boasting back in May about the ranges arriving in July."
Total sales were up 3.9 per cent to £4.88bn, although underlying pretax profits fell 9 per cent to £262m as M&S continues a £775m investment in stores, distribution centres and a new website.
The food, internet and international businesses all continued to perform well, but remain dragged down by the poor general merchandise sales which have been a problem for M&S for at least three years.
Marc Bolland, the chief executive, declined to suggest when general merchandise would be in positive territory but pointed out that the second quarter performed better than the first.
"Investors understand very well this is a journey and people should look at it from season to season. It will take a few collections to get a positive momentum," he said.
Mr Bolland also blamed warm September weather and extra promotions, including starting its summer sale a week early, for the fall.
M&S's food business, though, is continuing to go from strength to strength. Sales rose 2.5 per cent, and it now makes more money for the company than any other division.
It has moved into more speciality food items, and it has benefited from the horsemeat scandal, as the company has been left unaffected.