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Sales at the UK’s biggest supermarket, Tesco, fell slightly in the months that include the crucial Christmas period. But stronger takings in the weeks just before the festive period, which included its biggest day to date for food sales, helped bolster performance.

It was the final Christmas under the leadership of Tesco’s boss Dave Lewis, who said the chain had “performed well” in a “subdued” UK market.

However, Tesco said the UK market had “clearly been challenging”. Mr Lewis said customers were cautious about how they spent their money at Christmas, but the supermarket claimed “strong” promotions appealed to shoppers.

That helped the firm increase sales by 0.1% in the six-week festive period.

However, that was not enough to reverse a decline in UK sales in the 19 weeks to 4 January.

During that period, like-for-like sales, which exclude new store openings, fell by 0.2%.

Julie Palmer from consultancy Begbies Traynor said Mr Lewis would feel that he was leaving the company on “solid foundations”.

“Despite the slump in sales for some of the UK’s ‘big four’ supermarkets, Tesco has managed to remain robust during this precarious period,” she said.

In contrast, rival Marks & Spencer reported a rise in sales for the first time since 2017 in the the 13 weeks to 28 December. M&S said its food departments had a “standout” run in the two weeks leading up to Christmas, with like-for-like sales up 1.4%.

However, clothing and home sales were worse than expected, dropping 1.7% in the same period. The chain’s boss Steve Rowe also described the market as “challenging”.

On Monday, market research firm Kantar said supermarket sales growth over Christmas was the slowest in five years.

“There was no sign of the post-election rush many had hoped for in the final weeks before Christmas, with shoppers carefully watching their budgets,” said Kantar’s Fraser McKevitt.

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