British retailer Marks & Spencer has unveiled a better than expected rise in half-year profits, but saw a further fall in sales at its embattled clothing arm as it cut back on sales promotions. 

The chain said underlying pre-tax profits rose 6.1% to £284m in the six months to September 26.

It said this was due to higher food sales and as it focused on profit margins in its general merchandise business, which includes womenswear. 

But its decision not to join rivals in discounting left the group nursing another fall in like-for-like general merchandise sales, down 1.9% in its second quarter.

The group said trading conditions on the high street were tough as firms cut prices to shift stock after being hit by unseasonal conditions over the summer. 

M&S boss Marc Bolland insisted the chain's decision not to run hefty discounts was the right move, despite leading to a steeper fall in general merchandise sales, following on from a 0.4% drop in the first quarter.

"We delivered good underlying profit growth in the first half and made strong progress against our key priorities," he said. 

"In general merchandise, we decided to improve profitability by focusing on gross margin, delivering another significant increase, which in part resulted in slightly lower sales," he added. 

Mr Bolland also pointed to a decent performance in the group's food division, which he said outperformed the market once more, with like-for-like sales ahead by 0.2% in its second quarter, although this marked a slight drop on the 0.3% the previous three months.