Despite tentative attempts at optimism, it doesn't take much to confirm our fears about the economy. The downer this week arrived in the form of March retail sales, which dropped 1.1% after rising slightly in February.

But is it really all doom and gloom? All it takes is a look at the small print in recent earnings reports to see that consumers are still buying certain products. If major American companies are still finding ways to convince customers to shop, small businesses can too.

Ford ( F) and GM ( GM) are in dire straits. According to automotive market-research firm Autodata Corp., car sales fell 34% in March compared with a year earlier. SUV sales slid 51%.

Amid the negative numbers, there were glimmers of hope. Jeep Wrangler sales jumped 16%, and Hyundai's Sonata rose almost 10%. The Wrangler benefited from deep discounts on a model that usually doesn't offer deals. Hyundai got shoppers into showrooms by rolling out its Assurance program, which reassured skittish buyers that their payments would be covered even if they lost their jobs.

Another sector that's been suffering is the tech industry. Electronics sales declined 5.9% last month after rising 0.07% in February. Intel's ( INTC) first-quarter revenue fell 26% from a year earlier, with net income tumbling 55%.

CEO Paul Otellini tried to sound positive, saying, "We believe PC sales bottomed out during the first quarter and that the industry is returning to normal seasonal patterns." But the company was vague on guidance, which was enough to make the stock drop. When the head of a leading tech company says he doesn't know what's ahead, that makes everyone nervous.

Best Buy's ( BBY) fiscal fourth-quarter net earnings declined 23%, but sales in certain categories -- notebook computers and flat-screen TVs -- continued to grow. And although stores saw fewer customers, the average amount spent by each shopper actually rose.

High-definition TVs aren't the only gadgets still selling. Sales of Apple's ( AAPL) iPhone grew a staggering 245% in 2008. During a generally dismal Christmas shopping season, Amazon ( AMZN) sold out of its Kindle electronic readers.

Then there's consumer health-care giant Johnson & Johnson ( JNJ). This week, the company's first-quarter results showed a drop of 2.5% in net income. But J&J reported strong sales from Listerine mouthwash and the skincare lines Neutrogena and Aveeno. Once again, a generally negative report contained a few bright spots.

What are the lessons for your business?

1. Innovation pays off: Game-changers like the iPhone or Kindle will always attract gadget-heads. But any product that delivers measurable benefits to shoppers (such as lighter, cheaper laptops) can become must-haves. High-def TVs used to be luxury items; now, they're a suburban family-room staple.

2. Great deals make sales: By marking down a rarely discounted model, Chrysler was able to do the seemingly impossible: increase sales of a U.S. car (and a gas-guzzling one at that). Hyundai won over nervous customers by including "job loss insurance" with each sale.

3. Consumer-focused marketing sets you apart: By promoting the health benefits of what might otherwise be considered cosmetic products, Johnson & Johnson saw sales increase within very competitive categories. Listerine Total Care, for example, is sold as an "anticavity mouthwash" that strengthens enamel and reduces plaque. Neutrogena's soaps and creams come with recommendations from dermatologists.

These days, nothing is an easy sell. Let's just hope those few bright spots in the retail numbers become a bit more visible by the time the next report rolls around.

Elizabeth Blackwell is a freelance writer based in Chicago. She is the author of Frommer's Chicago guidebook, and writes for the Wall Street Journal, Chicago, and other national magazines.

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