Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the world's largest retailer, reported better-than-expected January sales — and is poised to become the world's biggest company for the first time after announcing its fiscal 2001 sales reached $218 billion.

The discount giant, which last year had sales of $191 billion in the fiscal year ending Jan. 31, was set to dethrone last year's No. 1 firm, Exxon Mobil Corp., which last month reported preliminary 2001 revenues of about $213 billion.

For the past two years, Wal-Mart has ranked second on Fortune magazine's list of the world's largest companies, which is issued in April.

In a recorded message, Wal-Mart raised its expectations for fourth quarter earnings, saying it expects February same store sales gains of 6 percent to 8 percent, the first indication for the first month of its new fiscal year.

Wal-Mart sales grew a better-than-expected 8.3 percent in January; it had forecast its sales growth would be at the upper end of a range of 4 percent to 6 percent.

The retailer said net sales in the four weeks ended Feb. 1 rose 13.8 percent to $15.40 ion in the comparable period a year ago.

At outlets open at least year, same store sales at Wal-Mart discount stores rose 8.6 percent last month, while sales at its warehouse unit Sam's Club were up 7.0 percent.

Analysts estimated Wal-Mart's fourth quarter earnings in a range of 48 cents to 50 cents with a mean at 48 cents, according to Thomson Financial/First Call, which tracks this data.

On the call, Wal-Mart said it sees "limited upside" to the 48 cent estimate. The retailer had backed that estimate last month.

Sales for the 52 week period were $219.06 billion, up 13.9 percent over the $192.41 billion in the similar period last year. The 52 week period is based on a retail industry calendar. Sales for Wal-Mart's fiscal year ended Jan. 31, 2002, were about $218 billion.

As of Jan. 31, the Bentonville, Arkansas company had 1647 Wal-Mart stores, 1066 Supercenters, 500 SAM'S CLUBS and 31 Neighborhood Markets in the United States.

Internationally, the company operated 11 units in Argentina, 22 in Brazil, 196 in Canada, 19 in China, 95 in Germany, 9 in Korea, 551 in Mexico, 17 in Puerto Rico and 250 in the United Kingdom.

Reuters contributed to this report.