Probably few people realize that the Sears Hometown Store in North Cape May is privately owned, a franchise of Sears Hometown and Outlet Stores Inc. - itself a spinoff of the retail giant.

That private ownership, by Arthur Sweeney of Hammonton, has helped the seller of major appliances and home equipment stay relatively strong during the five-year economic downturn.

"We've gotten to know the folks in the community and the county by providing the best service we can, and we've been able to hang on that way," Sweeney said Thursday. "We haven't had to lay anybody off, but we could have hired more people had the economy not taken such a downward turn."

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This year marks two decades since Sears closed its catalog stores and started the Home-town Store concept.

At that time, Sweeney's mom, Mary Sweeney, closed her catalog store in Hammonton and opened a Sears Hometown there.

Arthur Sweeney said the store was such a success that a year later in 1994, he acquired the Cape May market that was available and opened his Hometown Store there while still in his 20s.

The 6,000-square-foot store sells major appliances, such as refrigerators, washers, dryers and stoves, by major makers such as General Electric, Whirlpool, Maytag, Frigidaire and of course Kenmore, the highly regarded brand of Sears.

"We found some customers wanted to compare Kenmore with other brands out there, and this was a way to do so at one store," he said.

The same applies in vacuums, where Kenmores can be compared with models from Dyson, Eureka and Hoover.

Kenmore appliances have a history of being highly rated by Consumer Reports. Sweeney said often customers come in with the consumer magazine's recommended list in their hands.

For the yard, Sears Home-town sells equipment such as riding and push mowers, weed trimmers and leaf blowers, featuring the strong Sears Crafts-man brand.

The store also offers Sealy bedding, which it added since opening, and can get everything Sears has to offer for pickup at the store, in the Acme shopping center on Bayshore Road in the North Cape May section of Lower Township.

Sears Hometown and Outlet Stores, publicly traded on Nasdaq, said that as of 2012, its dealers and franchisees operated 1,238 stores across all 50 states and Puerto Rico, Guam and Bermuda, with 944 Sears Hometown Stores.

In the fiscal quarter that ended in early May, it had net income of $15 million on revenue of $601 million.

Sweeney said he's happy with the company as a partner, with its marketing, its policies, and the servicing of the products it provides.

To mark the end of the Sears, Roebuck Catalog era and the start of the Sears Hometown Stores, he has rolled back some prices Friday and today to where they were in 1993 on comparable appliances.

"For example, we've got a 21-cubic-foot Kenmore refrigerator on sale for $599.99, the same price as it was in the old Sears Big Book," he said.

Such rollback bargains are limited in the case of appliances, whose prices have remained stable or even fallen the past two decades. For example, the price of U.S. appliances overall fell 12 percent from 1997 to 2012, according to the Consumer Price Index of the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Sweeney credits his store's success to a year-round staff, and each member has more than a decade of experience.

One of them has been with him from the start: his mom, Mary.

"She sold her Hammonton store and came down here to work with me every day," he said. "She has a place at the shore, but she still has her house in Hammonton."

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