J SAINSBURY has reported a pre-tax profit of just £9 million for the first-half after it booked one-off costs of £203m relating to its store closure plan.

The retailer, which earlier this year failed in a bid to merge with Asda, reported a 15 per cent fall in underlying first-half profits, citing the phasing of cost savings, higher marketing costs and tough weather comparatives.

Sales during the period were flat at £15.1 billion. Like-for-like sales, excluding fuel, were down 1% during the period, although Sainsbury’s said a 1.6% fall in the first quarter of the financial year improved in the second, down just 0.2%.

Grocery was down 0.1% in the half, although the second quarter again improved, up 0.6% on a like-for-like basis.

READ MORE: Store closures cost Sainsbury's £203m

The supermarket improved sales across its businesses, which also includes Argos, throughout the second quarter of the year.

General merchandise sales fell 2% in the second quarter, compared with a 3.1% fall in the first, and Clothing grew 3.3% in quarter two compared with a 4.5% fall in Q1.

Mike Coupe, Sainsbury’s chief executive, said his strategy to reduce prices and improve availability is working, while also calling on greater certainty over Brexit from the next government and warning the General Election will impact its figures.

He said: “We are investing in hundreds of Sainsbury’s and Argos stores, introducing new products and services and continually improving service and availability. As a result, customer satisfaction has increased significantly year on year.”

He added that prices have been cut on 1,000 best-selling groceries, replacing the supermarket’s “Basics” range with new “Value” brands is progressing well, and 350 Taste The Difference products have been relaunched.#

READ MORE: Scotland set to gain in Sainsbury’s shake-up

Sainsbury’s has also focused on new beauty halls, with 100 in stores by Christmas, and signed an agreement with healthy fast-food chain Leon to sell its products.

In September, the firm updated investors on plans which will see 125 stores close, including Argos branches, but will open more.

Executives said they would close up to 15 large supermarkets and as many as 40 convenience stores, while opening 10 big stores and 110 convenience outlets under the plan.

It will also close 125 Argos stores and supermarkets but open more amid an overhaul to cut costs and increase its overall estate, it said.

Up to 200 stores will be opened across the country, including potentially in Scotland, leaving a UK net gain of between 75-100.

READ MORE: Sainsbury's closing more than 100 stores in major business overhaul

Sainsbury’s currently has around 1,200 stores across the UK and 100 north of the Border, where it has already introduced new formats.

As part of new accountancy rules around how property values can be added to balance sheets, Sainsbury’s took the one-off hit of £203m over the store closures.

However, this was lower than the £230m to £270m hit first predicted.

Mr Coupe said: “We have created positive momentum across the business through strategic investments in our customer offer. We have lowered prices on every day food and groceries, launched a range of value brands and are more competitive on price than we have ever been.

Mr Coupe also called on the next government to finally provide certainty on Brexit, along with reforming business rates and loosening planning rules to boost high streets.

READ MORE: Sainsbury’s sees sales tumble further amid ‘tough’ supermarket environment

He said: “The most important thing is we get some certainty around the Brexit scenarios. One way or another that weighs heavily on our customers and our markets.

“I would suggest that the whole Brexit scenario hangs over customers and creates uncertainty, so the quicker we can resolve that situation, the (sooner) economic factors should rebalance themselves.”

He said holding a General Election in December is likely to have an impact on sales, because polling day tends to be a quiet one for retailers.

Shares were flat at 206.6p on the news.