When shopping for used clothes is a more pleasurable experience than going into a Sears store, it's time to pack up your merchandise and go home. Photo credit: Mike Mozart.

Things have gotten so bad at Sears Holdings (SHLDQ) that women would rather wear used clothes than shop at its stores. Remind me again why this retailer still exists?

According to a Prosper Insights & Analytics survey last month of more than 3,900 adult women shoppers, thrift store Goodwill ranked higher among women as their preferred destination for clothes than either Sears, which came in 15th place with just 1% saying the it was their top choice, or Kmart, which ranked slightly higher. 

Clothes are the raison d'etre for why these retailers are in business, and it typically ranks as the biggest bit of merchandise sold. 

Kohl's (KSS 0.37%) derives around 30% of its sales from women's clothing, while J.C. Penney (JCPN.Q) and Macy's (M -3.09%) both generate nearly a quarter of their sales from women's apparel, though for Macy's they are its second biggest category behind women's shoes, intimates, and accessories.

Sears also gets a good chunk of its sales from women's clothes, some 27% in fact, but if you can't beat a used clothing store, then you may as well turn off the lights and padlock the door behind you. Among the retailers Prosper Insights said ranked higher than Sears were:

  • Kohl's 14.2%
  • Wal-Mart 11.5%
  • Macy's 9%
  • J.C. Penney 6.7%
  • Old Navy 2.4%
  • T.J. Maxx 2.2%
  • Goodwill 1.4%
  • Kmart 1.4%
  • Sears 1%

That hasn't always been the case for the once venerable department store operator; not too long ago it outranked even J.C. Penney. 

Yet the market researchers say that may only have been because its rival was in freefall as ex-CEO Ron Johnson attempted to remake the retailer into a modern, progressive department store. As J.C. Penney's customers fled, Sears was apparently one of the beneficiaries. But the gains didn't hold and these days J.C. Penney is performing appreciably better than even Kohl's or Macy's.

Sears future is a bleak existence as its customer base dwindles away. Photo credit: Nicholas Eckhart.

Sears is now the one tumbling uncontrollably, experiencing a 9% drop in full-year 2015 comparable store sales, a decline driven primarily by falling sales in apparel and other soft goods. So it's not surprising that Prosper Insights & Analytics found the retailer is fading fast -- though even its biggest critics are probably surprised that it placed behind Goodwill.

Not even the one silver lining the survey held for Sears bodes well for its future. The market researchers found Sears does remain the leading place consumers go to shop for appliances, but do-it-yourself center Lowe's (NYSE: LOW) is quickly narrowing the gap.

The industry watchers at TraQline found Sears market share has eroded from 33% of the appliance market a decade ago (and over 40% at the turn of the century) to a little more than 25% last year. At the same time, the big box store has grown to a 20% share, meaning it shouldn't be long before it overtakes it.

The Kenmore brand is arguably the one remaining asset CEO Eddie Lampert hasn't sold off that still delivers value, more so even than Craftsman tools or Diehard batteries. But even its share has slipped, falling behind both Whirlpool and GE.

And in a bit of irony, J.C. Penney may be the one that drives the final nail into Sears' coffin now that it's testing the sale of appliances in a handful of stores, with an eye toward rolling them out nationally. J.C. Penney hasn't been in the business in three decades, but it found appliances were one of the top things customers searched for on its website. If anyone is threatened by Penney's return to the appliance market it ought to be Sears.

CEO Lampert has presided over the dismantling of the once great Sears empire, shedding everything of value that wasn't still nailed to the walls. In doing so, he also eliminated just about any reason people had to shop its stores, and now even women, who account for 80% of all clothing sales, would rather wear used clothes instead of Sears clothes. It's become clearer than ever that there's no reason for this retailer to remain in business.