Marks & Spencer has reported sharply contrasting fortunes as buoyant trading in its food halls helped offset more dismal sales figures in clothing.
Announcing its strongest growth in two years, M&S – which has 18 stores in Northern Ireland – said overall like-for-like sales excluding changes in store space were up 0.6% in the 13 weeks to March 30.
The improvement was driven by a 4% jump in sales in the food department as consumers showed signs of trading up to the retailer in light of the horse meat scandal affecting a number of supermarkets.
Clothing sales remained under pressure, with the cold weather and weak consumer confidence forcing M&S to increase promotional activity in March. Like-for-like sales were down 3.8% in general merchandise but this was better than a number of City forecasts.
M&S shares surged 4% as yesterday's underlying sales figure represented a big improvement on the decline of 1.8% seen in the previous three months.
General merchandise sales also fell by 3.8% in the 13 weeks to December 29, but food has done much better than the 0.3% rise seen in the previous quarter.
Chief executive Marc Bolland, who is under increasing pressure to revive the clothing business, said a new fashion management team had started to deliver improvements in terms of stock availability and management.
He added: "We delivered an excellent result in food, with performance well ahead of the market, as customers continued to trust us for provenance and quality."
The division has now delivered more than three years of sales growth, with the most recent quarter benefiting from its best-ever Easter week.
Mr Bolland added: "We are extremely proud of our long-term relationships with farmers and suppliers, which are based on trust, provenance and market leading quality at all times.
"As a result we were pleased to be unaffected by the recent issues affecting the food industry."
Mr Bolland has drafted in former Debenhams and Jaeger boss Belinda Earl to revitalise womenswear, but it is still too early to judge her impact on ranges, which are not due in stores until the summer.
The City expects overall annual group profits to fall for the second year in a row when M&S reports results later this spring.
This follows a grim 2011 for the group, when profits fell for the first time in three years, down 1% to £705.9m.
Shore Capital continues to expect profits of £629m for the year to the end of March, rising to £682m in the following year.