Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (WMT) Thursday reported a better-than-expected 4.1 percent increase in February sales at U.S. stores open at least a year, the largest hike since last May, and it raised its dividend by 15.4 percent.

The world's biggest retailer also forecast March same-store sales (search) growth similar to or better than February's, sending its shares up nearly 2 percent.

Wal-Mart, which has raised its dividend every year since 1975, had forecast a 2 percent to 4 percent increase in February same-store sales. Analysts on average forecast 3.8 percent, according to Reutern May 2004.

Total sales in the four weeks ended Feb. 25 rose to $22.37 billion.

The company also said it was raising its annual dividend to 60 cents a share for the fiscal year ending Jan. 31, 2006, up from 52 cents a share. The first quarterly installment of 15 cents a share will be paid on April 4 to shareholders of record as of March 18.

Same-store food sales were stronger than general merchandise, Wal-Mart said.

Traffic and the average check were both up, the company said.

Wal-Mart shares rose 98 cents $52.93 on the New York Stock Exchange (search).