Battling Marks & Spencer is fighting back with a new chain of lingerie shops designed specially for women.

The retail giant is hoping to woo new customers across the Channel by opening three lingerie `sanctums' in France and Germany to increase its presence in Europe.

It says Spain could be next on the list for the new chain and although it has not ruled out bringing the idea to the UK, the rest of Europe is the priority at the moment.

An M&S spokesman said: "We have a big presence in the UK with more than 300 stores. We haven't ruled out bringing the new division to the UK, but the priority is the rest of Europe. Spain may be next."

The new shops will be on the scale of boutiques, much smaller than normal M&S stores, and will be called "msl", short for Marks & Spencer Lingerie.

They will be about 150-250 sq m in size, and are designed to "connect with customers on an emotional level". A spokesman for M&S said: "They are very focused towards women. They are designed as places where women can relax."

The msl stores, to be opened in Paris, Düsseldorf and Hamburg, will be totally different from traditional M&S shops. They will feature sofas, curving mosaic walls and products displayed in wooden frames and wrapped in tissue paper. The stores will stock 75 per cent of the M&S core range and 25 per cent exclusive to msl shops. The move represents a further focus by the store on its core lingerie market.

In the UK, M&S has a market share of over 30 per cent while lingerie accounts for just one fifth of sales in M&S's 30 continental stores.

The msl stores in Avenue Victor Hugo, Paris, and Centro Oberhausen near Düsseldorf will open on November 2 and the Hamburg outlet on November 4.

Last year, M&S took on Joseph Corre, the name behind the Agent Provocateur brand, to create a racier range of underwear.

* Northern Ireland is to get the first 'new concept' Marks and Spencer store in Ireland, it emerged yesterday.

Work on the £4m ($5.8m) revamped store at Sprucefield is already under way and the result will be officially unveiled on November 14.

When completed, it store will employ more than 500 permanent staff. The new-look shop is one of 25 throughout the UK to get a major facelift in time for Christmas.

By Deborah Bowyer