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Marks and Spencer has reported its first rise in yearly profits for four years.

Underlying profit before tax rose by 6.1% to £661.2 million for the year to 28th March, which is a better result than analysts’ forecast. Its food business had a good year, but sales of general merchandise, which includes marks and spencerclothing, were below expectations, the retail giant said.

Despite this, sales of women’s wear rose in the final quarter. Like-for-like sales of general merchandise fell 3.1% over the year and Marks and Spencer said that it had suffered from the mild weather last autumn, which had hit sales of knitwear and coats. Last autumn was the third warmest on record and that combined with online problems over Christmas has weighed heavily on sales over the year.

In the January to March period, sales had returned to growth and food sales rose 0.6% over the year on a like-for-like basis. Despite intense competition, the retailer said it had outperformed the market.

Marks and Spencer also said that it was raising its dividend by 5.9% and announced a £150 million share buyback programme. Analysts welcomed the news.

The chief executive Marc Bolland said that the improved results came despite the most difficult retail market in 15 years and also stated that the company was confident in the strength of its clothing range.

New Look has been bought for £780 million by a South African magnate.

Brait, who is controlled by retail billionaire Christo Wiese, has bought a 90% stake in the budget fashion chain and the family of Tom Singh, who founded the company in 1969, and other senior management will have the remaining 10% stake.

New Look, who has more than 800 stores in 21 countries including  stores in both Hastings and Bexhill, is being sold by the private equity firms Apax and Permira. In 2004, they took the chain private in a £700 million deal because the retailer had spent six years listed on the London stock market.

In 2010, the firms planned to relist New Look but the stock market flotation was abandoned due to volatile market conditions. The Brait deal means that Apax and Permira will not make any attempt to float New Look, which is carrying around £1 billion of debt.

Brait stated that it had originally bought New Look for its 600 stores in the UK and its possibility of growth in markets such as China and continental Europe. It also has a near 20% stake in the food retailer Iceland and had bought a controlling stake in the Virgin Active gym chain for around £700 million last month.

Anders Kristiansen, chief executive for New Look, will stay on following the purchase. In recent years, Mr Wiese has been linked with a string of UK retail takeovers which includes a bid for department chain BHS, formerly owned by Sir Philip Green.

Another investment of Mr Wiese’s, Pepkor, is launching a discount fashion chain in the UK called Pep & Co with Andy Bond, who is the former Asda chief executive. It plans to open 50 stores, creative 500 new jobs by the end of the summer.