The beleaguered boss of Marks and Spencer claims its food business is holding up well ­ despite a dismal performance in the rest of its UK operations. "At the half year, food sales improved by 2.6% [to reach £1.34bn], we maintained market share and we have since had a good start to the autumn season," said chairman and chief executive Luc Vandevelde. "We have increased the net achieved margin by more than 0.5% while controlling operating costs. For the second year we have delivered an improvement in operating margin at the same time as better sales." Like for like food sales were up 1.1% during the six months to September 30. Inflation was running at 1% during the period, said M&S. The second half has got off to a good start, with like for like sales up 4.6% in the five weeks to November 4, and total sales 5.8% ahead. Vandevelde said product innovation was key for M&S and he said it would continue to focus on ranges that reflect emerging consumer trends ­ such as food to go and wellbeing lines. He also revealed that M&S would add ready meal solutions to its online offering next year, following a year long trial. Shoppers in South Bucks have been using a CD-rom to order from a range of 3,000 products. M&S is now evaluating the results ahead of the launch of what Vandevelde called a "solution orientated" service. The M&S food business is under scrutiny following the revelation in the Competition Commission's report into supermarkets that operating profit has tumbled from a peak of £247m in 1996 to £137m last year. Amanda Large, an analyst at Greig Middleton, said that while the Commission's figures were "probably exaggerated" through the inclusion of rising property costs, they showed M&S "could take nothing for granted". She warned: "If consumers don't come in to buy clothes, they won't buy food either. Especially if competitors can offer similar high quality at cheaper prices." Group pretax profit was down 5% at £183.4m, while UK operating profit was down 23% at £124.7m. - M&S announced it was closing six smaller stores while two others would shrink. Eight more will get a "less is more" revamp. M&S said it was on track to open 25 of its new concept stores before Christmas. {{NEWS }}