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.

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