For dividend investors, the recent news that Stanley Works (NYSE:SWK) hiked its dividend for the 41st straight year sounds downright enticing. But the headlines alone don't tell the whole story.

The venerable Stanley Works has been paying dividends annually since 1877. That's quite a track record, and it suggests that we can probably count on next year's dividend arriving. Yet not all dividend increases are alike. Stanley's latest is a 3.2% increase, from $0.31 per share to $0.32. 

Other companies have recently announced much more tantalizing hikes. Schwab (NASDAQ:SCHW), for example, has upped its payout by 20%, while Anheuser-Busch (NYSE:BUD) has announced a 12% increase. Canon (NYSE:CAJ) raised its payout 20% in March, while optionsXpress Holdings (NASDAQ:OXPS) upped its dividend by a full 28% recently.

Another consideration is the company's long-term dividend growth rate. A 28% hike seems great, but not if the company rarely increases its dividend after that, or only does so in 1% increments. UPS (NYSE:UPS), for example, has a 17% five-year dividend growth rate, while higher-yielding Merck (NYSE:MRK) has only seen 1% dividend growth over the past five years. Stanley Works has increased its dividend by an annual average of 4% since 2003 -- hiking it by about a penny per year.

More considerations
Then there's the payout ratio. According to David Templeton at, Stanley Works payout ratio is around 31%, down from 46%. This means that the company is keeping more of its income for other purposes, rather than paying it out to shareholders. Discriminating shareholders and potential investors might want to check where that money's going. A broader economic perspective might also help; the company is rather cyclical, and it isn’t likely to soar as long as our housing market and economy are in a slump.

What to do
When you approach dividends, do so with a level head. Look for sustainable payout ratios, sustainable competitive advantages, and consistent growth.

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Longtime Fool contributor Selena Maranjian does not own shares of any companies mentioned in this article. United Parcel Service is a Motley Fool Income Investor recommendations. Charles Schwab and optionsXpress Holdings are Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendations. Try our investing newsletter services free for 30 days. The Motley Fool is Fools writing for Fools.