The absence of a new profit warning with Marks & Spencer's trading statement for the 13 weeks to April 2 gave the shares a fillip yesterday despite another set of shrinking sales numbers. 

 The shares surged to 3561/2p, before easing off to finish at 3543/4p for a gain of 133/4p on the day after M&S nudged its estimate for its full-year preexceptionals profit up to £610-625 million from £600-625 million given in January.

That is still materially short of the 400p Philip Green indicated at the time of his unsuccessful bid approach last year, but no longer altogether out of sight.

Yesterday Stuart Rose, M&S's chief executive said the next six months will be crucial in his recovery drive.

There would be "a lot of head-scratching" if the turnaround strategy fails to begin working in the next couple of quarters, he added.

M&S said in an update that total like-for-like sales in the fourth quarter - the first three months of calendar 2005 - fell by 4.9 per cent behind the same months last year. Full-year sales were down 5.1 per cent.

Clothing and home sales were 6.7 per cent down likefor-like on the fourth quarter a year ago, an improvement on a

8.5 per cent setback in the pre-Christmas third quarter. But that still left a full-year decline of seven per cent,

Food sales were also down on this like-for-like basis, but higher when contributions from extra space in the 'Simply Food' format and new outoftown shops are included.

"The trading environment continues to be difficult," Mr Rose said.

"The company is going through substantial change and we believe we are making progress tackling the underlying issues that we face."

Encouraging signs include a rising "footfall" - more people visiting M&S shops. M&S has also sold more clothes in volume terms - lower prices account for a 3.1 per cent fall over the full year.

Overall, M&S has also tackled stock surpluses reported earlier in the year. "Stocks are clean", it stated yesterday.

Mr Rose said it had tightened cost controls. The savings should offset underlying cost inflation, the cost of annual new store space and an expected increase of about eight per cent in rates. He refused to rule out job losses.

"This is not all about losing people, but we're continuing to review the structures in the business to make sure they are appropriate," he said.

M&S, he added, is still "a fabulous business with a good brand and good products".

"I think we have failed customers in the last few years and we are working to get back on track," he said.

" There are signs of improvement, but trading is still woeful," said Simon Proctor, analyst at broker Charles Stanley.

"The results are pretty much as expected," said Paul Mumford, a fund manager at M&S shareholder Cavendish Asset Management.

"It is disappointing that sales are down, but that seems to be the norm for retailers of M&S's ilk, because it is tough out there on the high street."