updated 2/28/2006 8:15:17 AM ET 2006-02-28T13:15:17

Staples Inc. on Tuesday said its fourth quarter profit rose 15 percent, narrowly beating Wall Street expectations, as delivery sales at the nation’s largest office products retailer grew faster than retail sales.

The Framingham-based company reported net income of $290 million, or 39 cents per share, for the November-January period compared with a profit of $251 million, or 33 cents per share, in the same quarter a year earlier. Sales grew 9 percent to $4.46 billion, compared with $4.08 billion a year ago.

The most recent quarter’s performance beat by a penny a share the consensus forecast of analysts surveyed by Thomson Financial, who expected a profit of 38 cents per share.

Staples said sales from its North American office products delivery business grew 18 percent in the fourth quarter, compared with 3 percent growth for its North American stores. International sales grew 9 percent, but overseas sales were flat when accounting for fluctuating foreign currency values. Sales at stores in Europe open at least a year were up 3 percent, Staples’ best performance by that measure since early 2003.

For the full fiscal year of 2005 — which ended Jan. 28 — Staples reported net income of $834 million, or $1.12 per share, up 18 percent from $708 million, or 93 cents per share, in the previous year. Sales rose 11 percent to $16.1 billion from $14.4 billion.

For this year’s first quarter, the chain of 1,780 office products stores forecasts earnings per share to grow 15 percent to 20 percent. Analysts surveyed by Thomson First Call expect a per-share profit of 24 cents.

Staples, whose key rivals include Office Depot Inc. and OfficeMax Inc., expects full-year sales growth in the low double-digit range, with earnings per share rising 15 percent to 20 percent.

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