Home improvement was one of the biggest gainers during the pandemic, since people couldn't do much outside their homes. Companies that were prepared with diverse ominchannel options had some of their strongest quarters ever. But what happens after the pandemic ends? Home Depot (NYSE:HD), Lowe's (NYSE:LOW), and Williams-Sonoma (NYSE:WSM) all have the power to make their gains last.

The leading home improvement retailer

Home Depot has shown yet again that there's a reason it scores more sales than its competitors, with $33.5 billion in fourth-quarter sales, a 23% increase over the prior year. Hardware stores were mostly open during the pandemic as essentials retailers, so Home Depot's success wasn't about being the only game in town like Target or Walmart, but about being the trusted brand for many Americans. 

Home Depot associate carrying paint buckets in store aisle

Image source: Home Depot.

The company made deep investments in its digital options and infrastructure just before the pandemic that gave it powerful capabilities to meet customer demand. But it's also keeping profitability high, with $3.18 in earnings per share versus $2.53 last year despite employee bonuses and other pandemic-related measures.

CEO Craig Menear noted that there was increased demand due to the pandemic, but he's preparing to keep up with new distribution centers along with the acquisition of HD Supply, a complementary business in the maintenance, repair and operations marketplace. That cements Home Depot's leading position, and lengthens the company's growth runway.

Management did not provide a future outlook beyond investing in its associates, but Menear is setting up to grow. He said: "Everything that we've been doing through our investment program is to try to position The Home Depot to grow faster than the market on a consistent basis no matter what the operating environment is."

Lowe's associate in store faucet aisle

Image source: Lowe's.

Second place, but quickly gaining

As the perennial second-place home improvement chain, Lowe's is still one of the largest companies in the U.S. by sales. With the guidance of CEO Marvin Ellison and a push from the pandemic, sales are skyrocketing even faster than top-spot Home Depot's. 

Metric Q3 2020 Q2 2020 Q1 2020
Home Depot comps change 24% 23% 6%
Lowe's comps change 30% 35% 11%

Data source: Home Depot and Lowe's quarterly reports.

Lowe's overhauled its previously weak digital program before the pandemic, allowing it to benefit from home improvement trends. Total sales were still well below its biggest rival, but the Lowe's store count is catching up, and customers are responding. Why are customers so happy? For one thing, in the third quarter the company invested $100 million in improving operations, such as redesigning store layouts to put the right products next to each other. Sometimes it's the small details that make people feel cared about, besides making it easier to find products and therefore buy more. It also has a solid pro program that it invests in heavily to secure that market.

Investors can expect to see a lot more from Lowe's in the near and long term.

Niche market with a wide moat

Williams-Sonoma as a stock doesn't generate the same hype as Home Depot and Lowe's, but in fact it has gained the most year to date of the three retailers on this list, up nearly 55%.

Room decorated to a theme with similar furniture, pillows, and curtains

Image source: Williams-Sonoma.

The company reported another excellent quarter on Thursday with a 24% comps increase and improved profitability. It surely benefited from people staying at home, especially because its premium branding meant that its core customers could still afford to shop. 

Other housewares stores, such as Bed Bath & Beyond, have a less affluent market, and department store competitors don't have the same focus, which means Williams-Sonoma has a market all unto itself. It also owns several other high-end brands like West Elm and Pottery Barn, all of which performed very well during the pandemic and give the company many ways to score sales. Interestingly, the Williams-Sonoma brand declined in sales a year ago but had the largest increase in the 2020 third quarter, speaking to the strength of the brand in hard times.

CEO Laura Alber said that the company's three-pronged approach of quality brands, digital capabilities, and inspired marketing, along with a range of price points, is its "distinctive positioning and our competitive advantage."

The company expects long-term growth and increases its dividend annually, making it a great long-term pick.