Staples Profit Climbs Amid Strong Sales

Staples Inc. (SPLS), the nation's largest office products retailer, said Thursday its fourth-quarter profit grew 19 percent on rising sales, particularly in its overseas and delivery businesses, and boosted its dividend by 25 percent.

For the November-January period, the Framingham, Mass.-based chain earned $251 million, or 50 cents per share, matching the consensus estimate of analysts surveyed by Thomson First Call. It earned $212 million, or 42 cents per share, in the comparable quarter a year earlier.

Its shares rose 14 cents to $31.95 on the Nasdaq Stock Market (search), approaching its 52-week high of $33.88.

Overall revenue rose to $4.08 billion from $3.61 billion a year ago. Sales at stores open at least a year grew 4 percent, with sales from international operations rising 22 percent and Staples' North American delivery business increasing 19 percent.

The 19 percent increase in Staples' profit broke a string in which the company's earnings had risen at least 20 percent or more for 12 straight quarters.

For the full-year period ended Jan. 29, Staples reported net income of $708 million, or $1.40 per share, compared with a profit of $490 million, or 99 cents per share, in the previous year. Sales in the most recent year grew 11 percent to $14.4 billion from $12.97 billion a year ago, with sales at stores open at least a year rising 4 percent.

"We're starting off 2005 on rock solid footing," said Ron Sargent, Staples' president and chief executive. "Trends are strong, our team's execution has never been better and we are driving improvements in all areas of our business."

For this year's first quarter ending April 30, the chain of 1,680 office products stores forecasts earnings per share of 29 cents to 30 cents. Analysts surveyed by Thomson First Call expect a per-share profit of 30 cents.

For the full year, Staples expects revenue growth in the low double-digit range, and North American comparable retail sales in the low single digits. Earnings per share are expected to grow 15 percent to 18 percent.

Staples said it was raising its annual dividend to shareholders to 25 cents a share from 20 cents per share. The dividend increase is payable on April 14. The board also authorized a three-for-two stock dividend for investors holding shares on March 29, with a payment date of April 15.

Staples, with competitors including Office Depot Inc. (ODP) and OfficeMax (OMX), has recently begun several initiatives aimed at making shopping easier, including redesigned stores with easier-to-use floor layouts and a paperless, online system for customer rebates. Staples also has recently emphasized profitable copying services and products carrying in-house store brand names, which grew to 15 percent of the company's total sales this past year.